Tyler Barbee shares his sports passion with special-needs kids


As a little boy growing up in Mill Valley, Calif., playing baseball meant the world to Tyler Barbee.

“When I was a kid, baseball was my life,” said Barbee, now a 17-year-old high school senior at Tamalpais High School.

But he also knew that his love of the sport couldn’t be shared easily by his brother, Conner, who is four years older and has autism.

“I wanted him to be able to participate, but there wasn’t an environment for him to succeed,” Barbee recalled.

Six years ago he helped start Challenger Baseball & Basketball, a sports league for children with special needs.

Each special-needs player is matched with a buddy, typically a high school student without disabilities, to help learn not only the rules and skills necessary for the sport but also to give them a chance to socialize, gain confidence and develop friendships. The games are non-competitive, Barbee said, and mostly focus on having fun.

Another benefit of the program, he said, was the support network that emerged for the parents of the special-needs children.

“It wasn’t part of the initial plan, but was a really fantastic added benefit,” Barbee said.

Barbee, who serves as his school’s student body president, was recently awarded the DillerTeen Tikkun Olam Award. He plans to use some of the $36,000 award to expand the program to include tennis and soccer, as well as to purchase team jerseys and new sports equipment.

The program is also in the process of applying for 501(c)(3) status and has changed its name to Project Awareness and Special Sports.

“Sports were my community, and I wanted to create this for my brother and other children with special needs,” said Barbee. “I loved baseball and I wanted him to have the opportunity to feel this love, too.”

JTA spoke with Barbee about the hero who most impresses him, what connects him to Judaism and which California baseball teams he hopes to see in the World Series.

JTA: Who is your hero and why?

Barbee: I’ve been really very impressed with Martin Luther King Jr. Everything that I’ve learned about his protests and [acts of] nonviolence is impressive and inspiring to me.

What is meaningful to you about being Jewish?

How connected and strong the community is, and I am very proud to be a part of it.

What advice would you give to other teens interested in starting a tikkun olam project?

I’ve learned that things can go in other ways than what you expect and still work out. There are different ways to get things done and not one set way.

What do you think you want to be when you grow up?

I’m not quite sure, but I am interested in business and having a business or nonprofit that has a positive impact on society.

What kind of things do you like to do for fun?

I like mountain biking, hiking, camping with my friends and playing baseball recreationally.

Who would you like to see in the World Series this year?

I’m actually an [Oakland] A’s fan, so I am hoping that they make it and beat the [Los Angeles] Angels! It would be nice to see the [San Francisco] Giants play the A’s.

Jewish Money


Give Bernard Madoff credit for one good deed: As much as his self-confessed Ponzi scheme revealed weaknesses in the Jewish world, it also laid bare many ofour strengths.

Trials and tribulations tend to do just that — bring to light the good, the bad, the ugly. When some people behave at their worst, others are forced to, or revealed to, behave at their humanly best.

That’s what any fair look at the Madoff scandal shows. The standard worry is that Madoff’s actions will give rise to a vicious anti-Semitic backlash. But I don’t see it, despite the fact that all the cretinous Jew-haters have come forward online, using this scandal as proof of Jewish financial perfidy.

Complete Madoff CoverageEarlier this week, when I entered the search terms “Madoff” and “Jewish” into Google, the top responses included JewishJournal.com and stormfront.org, a neo-Nazi Web site. That should alarm no one: The only people more obsessed than neo-Nazis with a famous person’s specific degree of Jewishness are Jewish journalists.

But anti-Semites never need a reason to hate Jews. They were penning their poison before Madoff, and they’ll be spreading it long after he’s gone. Madoff doesn’t make anti-Semites more rational, just more topical.

But will their spew gain more traction in the wider community? I doubt it.

It’s not just that Madoff’s victims were disproportionately Jewish. (That fact alone should give pause to the idea that we possess some super-Spidey sense of financial acumen.)

It’s that the list of victims reveals something truly remarkable about the Jewish world: its deep and far-reaching philanthropy.

What, for instance, does this partial list of Madoff-afflicted charities have in common: Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, the Chais Family Foundation, the Wunderkinder Foundation, Carl & Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation, The JEHT Foundation, Julian J. Levitt Foundation, Technion—The Israel Institute of Technology?

The answer is that they spend much, if not all, of their time and resources helping non-Jews.

Steven Spielberg’s Wunderkinder Foundation supports more than 75 diverse organizations and institutions, from the American Museum of Natural History to the Young Musicians Foundation. It gave generously to Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services and to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, two institutions founded by Los Angeles Jews that serve a largely non-Jewish population.

A much-loved anti-Semitic trope is that “tentacles” of Jewish power encircle Wall Street, the White House, the media. But the truth is that it is the tentacles of Jewish philanthropy that reach far beyond our small, numerically insignificant community.

Public radio? The Carl & Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation gave millions to WGBH in Boston. According to The Boston Globe, the Shapiro Foundation gave more than $80.3 million over the past decade to hundreds of schools, hospitals, arts groups and community-based nonprofits in the Boston area and beyond.

Human rights? The JEHT Foundation in Massachusetts gave millions to the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, among many other organizations.

The arts? The Arthur I. and Sydelle F. Meyer Charitable Foundation of West Palm Beach, Fla., wiped out by Madoff, supported the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, the Norton Museum of Art and a downtown Palm Beach amphitheater, among others. Tentacles indeed.

The list is much, much longer: The money that Madoff lost had done incalculable good, saving lives, advancing art and science, making the world a better place.

In his Sunday column, The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof wrote that liberal Americans are less generous than conservative Americans. “Liberals show tremendous compassion in pushing for generous government spending to help the neediest people at home and abroad,” Kristof wrote, “yet when it comes to individual contributions to charitable causes, liberals are cheapskates.”

I don’t know if Jews, among the most liberal of voters, fall into the cheapskate category, or whether Jewish giving pushes up the liberal average. There is no comprehensive study of Jewish philanthropy to compare Jewish giving, whether to synagogues or for other purposes, to general American giving, according to Gary Tobin, director of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.

But if you scroll through the list of Madoff’s philanthropic victims, you’ll find plenty of evidence that even Jews who have shed every vestige of their ancient practice short of circumcision still resonate to the prophetic call to heal the wider world.

In the second volume of his “Code of Jewish Ethics,” (Bell Tower, 2009), Rabbi Joseph Telushkin traces the textual roots for this precept back to the Talmud.

“The Talmud ruled that, ‘we provide financial support to the gentile poor as well as to the Jewish poor,'” recounts Telushkin. “This ruling was issued at a time when the non-Jews among whom the Jews lived were usually idolators with values antithetical and often hostile to Judaism.”

Telushkin concludes: “If we donate only to Jewish causes or to individual Jews in need, we may stop seeing everyone as being equally created in God’s image and therefore worthy of our help. After all, we are all members of one race, the human race.”

That’s something the Madoff scandal makes clear Jews haven’t forgotten.

Skirball photo exhibit shows Pope John Paul II’s lifetime of outreach to Jews


A large photo in the exhibition “A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People” shows a smiling Elio Toaff, the chief rabbi of Rome, warmly welcoming the pontiff to Rome’s Great Synagogue in 1986.

Today, when interfaith meetings and celebrations are routine, it is difficult to imagine the impact of the first papal visit to the synagogue after 2,000 years of Catholic antagonism and persecution of Jews.

John Paul II, who once worked in a stone quarry, seemed destined by history and background to smash a large opening in the wall that had separated the two faiths for centuries.

As richly illustrated through text panels, documents, photos and videos in the Skirball Cultural Center exhibition, which continues through Jan. 4, the pope’s 84-year lifespan is divided into four chronological segments.

The first section introduces the young boy, born Karol Wojtyla in Wadowice, about midway between Krakow and Oswiecim (Auschwitz).

In contrast to most Polish towns, Catholics and Jews mingled freely in Wadowice. The Wojtyla family lived in a predominantly Jewish apartment building, many of Karol’s classmates were Jewish, and he played goalie on a Jewish soccer team.

Next comes Karol’s young adulthood, when the Nazi invasion and occupation closed the Krakow seminary attended by the future pope. He and 800 other students organized underground classes and continued their clandestine studies.

In the third section, with the war over, Wojtyla rises from priest to bishop, cardinal and archbishop of Krakow. He participates as a junior member in the Second Vatican Council, which opens a new chapter in the church’s attitude toward other faiths. At the same time, he renews ties with the surviving Jewish community of Poland.

The final and climactic section, both in the exhibit and in Wojtyla’s life, is his papacy, from his election in 1978 to his death in 2005.

This period included his visits to Auschwitz and to the Rome synagogue, and his formal repentance for his church’s past antagonism toward the Jewish people. Earlier, in 1993, John Paul II commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in words imprinted in the exhibit’s title:

“As Christians and Jews, following the example of the faith of Abraham, we are called to be a blessing to the world. This is the common task awaiting us. It is therefore necessary for us, Christians and Jews, to first be a blessing to one another.”

In 2000, the pope undertook a pilgrimage to and formally recognized the State of Israel, inserting a note between the stones of the Western Wall.

In commemoration of this visit, a replica of part of the Western Wall stands near the exhibit’s exit. There visitors can write their own notes and prayers, which will be transferred to the actual Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Across from the simulated wall is a bronze casting of the pope’s hand as “a symbolic expression of the power of John Paul II’s personal touch in reaching out to people across the globe,” said Skirball senior curator Grace Cohen Grossman.

The Skirball center is making a special effort to attract Catholic visitors and members of the Polish community in Los Angeles to the exhibit, said museum director Robert Kirschner.

A large number of parochial schools have signed up for tours and the regular Skirball docents will be supplemented by guides drawn from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Given the large number of non-Jewish visitors, who may not be too familiar with the Holocaust, the exhibit also includes information on the extermination of Poland’s and Europe’s Jewry.

Two areas not covered in the show are the generally conservative doctrine and theology of John Paul II, and the attitudes and transgressions by past popes toward Jews.

“Our focus is on the remarkable outreach toward Jews and other peoples by John Paul II, his charisma and personal connections with people, and how the experiences of his early years led to his later accomplishments,” Kirschner said.

The exhibition was created and produced by Xavier University, a Jesuit institution, and the Hillel Jewish Student Center, both in Cincinnati, together with the Shtetl Foundation. The local showing is supported by the Polish consulate in Los Angeles and private donors.

Several related public programs will complement the exhibition during its nearly four-month run. Included are concerts, films, classes, lectures, family workshops and gallery tours. For more information, call or phone (310) 440-4500 or visit www.skirball.org.

AUDIO: Iranian American Jews — reaching out to poor and homeless in the city


Local Iranian American Jews are reaching out to the poor and homeless in the city of Los Angeles

” title=”Iranian American Jews”>Iranian American Jews blog.

Toward a better Federation


I recently accepted the chairmanship of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Although I did so somewhat reluctantly, I accepted this new responsibility because I believe that without a healthy revitalized Federation, Jewish life in Los Angeles will suffer.

It is no secret that The Federation, in recent years, has struggled to attract new supporters and increase its annual contributions. Acknowledging those facts is necessary in order to correct our agenda and improve the health of the organization.

At our last board meeting, I spoke to our board members about hope, growth and involvement. I’d like to share those thoughts with the community at large.

Hope: We, at The Federation, need to reignite the flames of hope for our donors, for our beneficiaries and for those of us (both lay and professional) who work at The Federation. Rekindling hope cannot be accomplished with words, but rather with growth and greater involvement in Federation activities, especially among the young people of our community.

Growth: In order to grow this organization, we need to do several things simultaneously. We need to focus our efforts on fewer activities. The projects and programs we need to choose must not duplicate others in our community, and those we do we must do at a level of excellence. In many cases, that means doing them in partnership with other Jewish organizations that have expertise and depth in a particular area. We need to support all Jewish organizations in Los Angeles and applaud their accomplishments. They are us.

In the area of growth, it is my plan to focus The Federation’s activities on:

1) Israel and overseas activities: We have a unique advantage over other Jewish organizations in our community in this area. We can build on our successful Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership and provide a meaningful Israel experience for all Jews traveling to Israel, no matter the sponsoring group.

2) Community: The Federation, representing the entire Jewish community, is best suited to begin partnerships with other ethnic and religious communities in Los Angeles, especially the Latino community, which demographically will soon be the largest community in Southern California.

3) Leadership: It is our job to identify and train future Jewish lay leaders not only for The Federation, but for all Jewish institutions in our area.

4) Education: We are nondenominational, and we ought to be inclusive. We are particularly situated to stimulate the growth of Jewish educational institutions from preschool to grammar school to high school and college-level Hillels. The demand for these services is overwhelming, and we can do this in partnership with other institutions in our community, including our synagogues.

5) Vulnerable services: The Federation has historically taken care of those in our community whom no one else cares for and we need to continue to do it in a meaningful, efficient and fair way.

The Federation needs to be seen as a place for seed capital in the nonprofit Jewish world. We need to encourage Jewish institutions of all stripes to begin, to grow, to prosper and we need to applaud their accomplishment, even if they compete with us for supporters and contributions. Competition is good, and we should not be afraid of it; it will make all of us stronger.

Involvement: In recent years our membership has receded. I believe that the reason for this is the failure to involve in a meaningful way the young people (ages 25-50) in our Federation and its activities. We ask for their money, but we have not provided them with meaningful opportunities to become involved in the activities of The Federation. I have promised myself and the board that within two years, one-half of our board will be made up of young people.

In order to achieve the strategic goals of hope, growth and involvement, we need to make three tactical changes. We need to continue, but at a more rapid pace, the emancipation of our agencies. In many cases, the agencies have become more dynamic than The Federation and we need to be less paternalistic about their activities. We need to fund projects and programs at the agencies that are consistent with our focus: Israel, community, leadership, education and vulnerable services. We need to applaud their success and see it as our success.

We also need to make changes to The Federation’s governance. A 135-person board is too large to effectively push the organization forward rapidly. Rather, we need a large assembly or congress of all Jewish organizations in the city to meet at least twice a year. The purpose of such meetings is for The Federation leadership to hear the broad macro-issues effecting our community so that we can focus our energies and attention on solving those issues; so that we can assist those with programs and projects that address the community’s priorities.

In contrast to the assembly/congress, The Federation itself needs a small board and executive committee in order to attack the day-to-day issues facing The Federation.

Finally, The Federation needs an army of campaigners to restore the prominence of our annual campaign, and we need to embrace directed giving if such giving is to one of our sponsored programs or projects. We have, in recent years, turned over the responsibilities for raising sufficient funds to The Federation staff. That trend is a mistake. It is lay leadership, with their networks of friends, family and business acquaintances, who have the responsibility to raise funds necessary to provide our programs. Under the general campaign leadership of Bettina Kurowski we have begun that process, but it requires everyone involved in The Federation to be a part of it. One cannot be involved on the distribution side unless one has made an effort on the revenue gathering side. This is not two Federations; this is one integrated Federation with lay leadership responsible to the community generally, both in fundraising and the distribution of money for services.

I believe that we can again make The Federation exciting and relevant to the Jewish community. I ask you to join with me in a new inclusive Jewish Federation; one that is especially welcoming to the young professional leaders in our lay community. If the challenge appeals to you, don’t hesitate to contact me … we’ll find a meaningful position for you. The responsibility of Jewish continuity and the Jewish future and Klal Yisrael is not a job for a small group of elite Jews, but rather a job for all of us and I hope The Federation will be your door to fulfilling that responsibility.

Stanley Gold is the recently appointed chair of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Agudath Israel emphasizes outreach to non-Orthodox


Is it permissible for an Orthodox family to play host to a Jewish couple if they don’t observe laws mandating sexual abstinence in the period surrounding menstruation?

That was among the questions posed to two leading rabbinic authorities in late November at the 85th national convention of Agudath Israel of America, the main umbrella body for ultra-Orthodox, or haredi, Jewry.

The answer: It is, if the room has two beds.

The session, titled, “Kosher Kiruv: Halachic Dos and Don’ts,” was part of a broad push to make kiruv, or outreach to nonobservant Jews, a mainstay among the rank-and-file of haredim.

At a plenary session titled, “American Jewry at Cliff’s Edge,” speakers cited worrisome statistics about American Jewish assimilation and stressed the responsibility of individuals to support efforts to help draw nonobservant Jews closer to their heritage.

“The cause of the spiritual Holocaust of the Jewish people isn’t as much assimilation as it is ignorance,” said Antony (Chanan) Gordon, a Harvard law school-educated hedge fund manager from Los Angeles, who persuaded the Agudah leadership to make kiruv the convention theme.

“Essentially, what we want the Orthodox world to hear from Torah authorities is that the time has come where we have to galvanize our forces and do what we can to spearhead a solution to what’s clearly a well-known problem in America,” he said.

While Gordon and others say the emphasis on kiruv is a path-breaking change for the Agudah crowd, an insular community mostly centered in a handful of close-knit enclaves in New York and New Jersey, kiruv in fact has been on the Agudah agenda for more than three decades.

After the group’s 1974 convention, Agudah founded the Jewish Education Program, which brought Jewish students from public schools to nearby yeshivas for religious instruction.

At the group’s 2004 conclave, Agudah’s executive director, Rabbi Shmuel Bloom, noting demographic trends showing that Orthodox Jews represent a growing percentage of an otherwise shrinking Jewish community, said Agudah constituents needed to take on greater responsibility for communal concerns that typically had been left to secular Jewish institutions.

Bloom said that this latest initiative reflects an urgent need to bolster efforts that have long been under way. But others said the convention theme suggested that the kiruv message has not permeated the rank and file.

“There seems to be a little bit of a disconnect between what the message that I think they have been giving and what the strictly Orthodox community has perceived, or at least has picked up on,” Rabbi Eli Gewirtz noted.

Gewirtz, who lives in New Jersey and runs a program that matches up nonobservant Jews with telephone study partners, was one of a handful of so-called “kiruv professionals” at the convention.

“It has not really filtered down in a very, very significant way,” he said.

Gordon, who chaired an outreach conference earlier this year in Baltimore, said he believes the new initiative could portend a potentially historic shift because of the collaboration between outreach professionals and Agudah’s religious leadership, which retains overall authority over the organization’s policies.

“We’ve never had the greatest sages and the most respected authorities in the Orthodox world articulating very unequivocally that this is an obligation and a call to action of not only activists and people who have a propensity to reach out to others,” Gordon said. “This is every single person’s obligation in the Orthodox world, so I think that’s a distinction.”

While the success of the new outreach initiative remains to be seen, the rhetoric alone suggests a growing self-confidence on the part of the ultra-Orthodox. Statistics show that haredim are growing as a percentage of American Jews and retain their young people at rates that dwarf those of modern Orthodoxy.

A widely cited study co-authored by Gordon predicted that on average, 100 haredim would yield 3,401 haredim after four generations, compared to 434 for Modern Orthodox Jews. The same 100 Conservative and Reform Jews would produce 29 and 10, respectively, according to the study.

Aharon Ungar, author of a book on kiruv techniques that was distributed to conference attendees, said Agudah’s earlier focus on its own communal priorities reflected a mentality of galus, or exile.

“Now, the Jewish community as a whole is very strong and the religious community is very strong, as well,” Ungar said. “So the religious community now has the ability — both the wealth, the knowledge and the leadership — to go beyond our own circle-the-wagons mentality. That’s why it’s something new now. We’ve only reached this point in this generation.”

Agudah’s kiruv efforts had focused on its education program and so-called community kollelim — small groups of young men paid to study Torah full-time.

Agudah aims to make kiruv more of a grass-roots concern, though for now, the initiative is short on specifics. The sole kiruv-related outcome of the conference was the establishment of an executive committee charged with hashing out the details of an outreach plan.

“The Agudah is not going to start a new kiruv organization; we’re not going to become a kiruv organization,” Bloom emphasized. “What we’re attempting to explain to our constituency is that they have to work with all the existing kiruv organizations — to use their talents and their abilities — to volunteer to expand the effort. And we think that this is the right time for that.”

Chabad seeks ‘members of the tribe’ in Australian outback


The idea of hunting for Jews in the Australian outback may sound as ridiculous as combing the streets of Jerusalem for Aborigines.

But when two Chabad emissaries set out this summer to find landsmen in the desolate outback, they were not disappointed.

In fact, had history turned out a little different, there would have been a Jewish colony in the Australian wilderness, but in 1944 then-Australian Prime Minister John Curtin quashed a plan, called the Kimberley Project, to resettle 75,000 Jews from Nazi Europe in the outback.

More recent, Australia’s colorful Orthodox rabbi, Joseph Gutnick, became known in the 1990s as “Diamond Joe” after his mining companies in the Western Australian desert struck rich veins, which Gutnick claims the Lubavitcher rebbe prophesied with a blessing on a map.

The rebbe is dead and the diamonds have dried up, but Jews are still searching the outback. Only now it is Chabad emissaries seeking Jews, not jewels, in the Australian wilderness.

“The Lubavitcher rebbe instilled in us a love for every single Jew,” said Chaim Telsner, one of two visiting yeshiva students from New York who traveled through the outback over the summer in a bright red-and-yellow Winnebago emblazoned with the Lubavitcher rebbe’s face looking for a few good Jews.

He and Mendel Grossbaum, a Minnesota native, were brought to Australia by the Chabad of Rural and Regional Australia to cross the continent in a “mitzvah tank” in search of outback Jews.

“Most of the places we visit only have one Jew,” Telsner said. “We’ll drive four to six hours for one Jew.”

Saul Spigler, who founded the Chabad of Rural Australia in 1977, estimates there are 7,000 to 10,000 Jews living outside Australia’s major metropolitan-area cities. For years he has been overseeing a project to find, register and impact rural Australian Jews.

Operating on a shoestring budget and with only one full-time employee, Spigler says his project to reach the Jews of Australia’s remote areas yields high returns.

“Every Jew has a spark of Judaism, and you’ll be surprised how that spark becomes a burning bush sometimes,” said Spigler, who has 3,000 rural Australian Jews on his Chabad database. “There’s no other Chabad operation like this in the world that I know of.”

Spigler, a lawyer, reels off stories from his years on the road: the man living in tropical north Queensland who thought the mezuzah they installed on his door was a menorah; the priest on the island of Tasmania who asked to put on tefillin; the pig farmers in northern New South Wales who turned out to be Jews; the 90-year-old man in Western Australia who had never had a bar mitzvah until the mitzvah tank arrived at his door.

Most rural Australian Jews are amazed that the Chabadniks have traveled so far just to be with them, Spigler says.

“The chance to have some lasting impact is really there. It’s one of the reasons that inspired me” to create the Chabad of rural Australia, he said.

Ruthi Urbach is the only Jew living in Scone, a town in rural New South Wales best known as the last resting place of Australia’s richest man, media tycoon Kerry Packer.

“To have these boys turn up out of the blue just to say hello and bring some Jewish contact into our lives was just lovely,” she said. “It’s a good feeling to know that someone out there has come so far just to see we are here.”

Michael Rosenfeld, who was one of the people Spigler visited back on his first trip to look for Jews in rural Australia in 1977, said the visit had a profound effect on him.

“Growing up I didn’t really have a lot of contact” with other Jews, Rosenfeld said. “I think they were a very important link for me at a critical time in my childhood.”

Rabbi Dov Oliver became Chabad of Rural and Regional Australia’s first full-time employee in 2004. He grew up in Melbourne; his father was a rabbi who traveled as far as Singapore to spread Yiddishkeit.

“The rural aspect is driving around the outback looking for Jews,” Oliver said. “The regional aspect is different. My wife and I will fly somewhere where there are between 30 to 100 Jews and set up shop for a couple of weeks for a Pesach seder, Chanukah program or Rosh Hashanah.”

Oliver manages the mitzvah tank Winnebago, ensuring it is staffed by yeshiva students and stocked with kosher food, Jewish books, mezuzahs, tefillin and other Jewish paraphernalia.

“A fellow named Joseph in Darwin made a huge impression on me,” Oliver recalled. “He is elderly, has had a stroke, is quite poor and his wife left him. He knows little about Yiddishkeit but sits every Friday night and lights candles.”

Conservatives’ New Dish


I read a remarkable quote a few days ago from a prominent member of the Conservative movement: “We’ve been searching for an identity for a hundred years now.”

A hundred years?

In the business world, products can fail in a year or two if they don’t have an identity. But in religion, maybe God gives you a pass from the realities of the marketplace.

Or maybe not.

Over the past couple of decades, the Conservative movement has been in a steady decline. A couple of years ago, one of the leaders, in his outgoing speech, described the movement as suffering from “malaise” and a “grievous failure of nerve.”

Everyone has a theory for why this has happened.

Mine is that they do have an identity, but it’s the wrong one: A great debating society.

When you think of the Conservative movement, you think of fascinating, complicated debates that aim to reconcile traditional halacha (Jewish law) with modern sensibilities. The leadership always seems to be going through some noble struggle to craft rulings that will delineate the permissible boundaries of their movement.

Now, the new powers have spoken, and after a 17-month “listening tour” and strategic review, they have decided to recommend … more debate.

From what I gather, they’ve had enough with “top-down” leadership, and now it’s time to let the “people” in on the process. They’re calling it the “mitzvah project,” whereby people will be encouraged to debate within their communities their personal views and feelings on mitzvahs, including, presumably, which ones of the 613 they feel like doing.

If you ask me, it sounds like they’ve thrown in the towel.

They haven’t figured out how to revitalize their movement, so they’re handing off the problem to the masses and calling it a grand community experiment to help define the movement.

That sounds noble, but there’s a problem: when you’re schlepping from carpool lanes to soccer practices with screaming kids in the minivan, you’re not in the mood to define religious movements. Professors, rabbis and scholars might live for the grand debate, but normal people don’t. They’re consumed with their own problems, like family, money, relationship and health. When they finally squeeze in time for religion, they want more than fascinating debates.

They want real nourishment.

For years, noisy, public debates — including some important ones on gender and gay issues — have had an enormous relevance to the process of Conservatives’ self-definition, but significantly less relevance to the nourishing of their flock.

As a result, the burden has fallen on individual communities, where local success stories are often due to charismatic and enterprising rabbis. It’s a shame the national leadership hasn’t led the way. But they can. They just need to expand their horizons. I would offer these suggestions:

First, de-emphasize the word Conservative and focus on Judaism.

Your followers are Jewish first and Conservative second. So are you. Focus less on the subtleties of your denomination and more on the richness of Judaism. Celebrate great answers, not just great questions.

Second, nourish your people with Judaism that connects to their lives. Unlike their rabbis, people don’t get paid to go to synagogues or conferences. They want to know: How will Judaism help me navigate through life? How will it enrich it? They don’t care whether their religion is organized or disorganized, as long as it’s relevant.

Launch a series — in video, Web, print and live classes — that would be called: “What Does Judaism Say About…?” Each section would deal with an issue people care about: money, marriage, social justice, raising kids, ecology, art, business ethics, health, intimacy, tikkun olam (healing the world), pleasure, charity, community, relationships, etc.

Have your experts craft this “nourishment” from the Torah literature they already teach, but would now tailor to the everyday interests and concerns of your people.

You can call it the Jewish Nourishment Project.

The more people feel that Judaism nourishes them, the more they’ll want to do mitzvahs, rather than just debate them. And when they do engage in debate, it will be from a point of knowledge — not only feelings and opinions.

The third suggestion is to nourish your people’s hearts and souls with spiritual experiences. The Conservative movement has some of the best and most spiritual “nourishers” in the Jewish world. Rabbi Ron Wolfson, for example, and many others have developed innovative ways of making the synagogue experience more welcoming and inspiring. Borrow from your local achievements to create national programs. Give spirituality a bigger priority in your seminaries. Create an annual spiritual convention. Help Jews elevate, not just debate.

Finally, think portable. Take your movement on the road and to college campuses. Reconnect with the thousands of Jews who have been nourished by one of your biggest success stories — Camp Ramah. Become known as a movement that provides Jewish knowledge and spiritual joy for all generations, even when they’re not in synagogue.

Make the head offices of the movement a Web-driven resource center to help disseminate your Jewish nourishment. Create your own global Webcasting network.

In short, re-brand yourselves as great Jewish nourishers — of the mind, body and soul.

Your efforts will always include fascinating debates and sensitive rulings. But these aren’t enough. If you want to thrive in the next century, you’ll need to start nourishing the Jewish world with what it is hungry for.

And that is good old Judaism, served up smart, deep and delicious.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Pluralistic rabbinical court seeks new funding; InterfaithFamily.com marks 200th issue


Pluralistic Rabbinical Court Seeks New Funding

The Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California, a local pluralistic religious court dealing with conversions, went on hiatus Jan. 1 due to lack of funding.

The beit din was founded in 2002 by George Caplan, in memory of his wife, Sandra Caplan. When Sandra Caplan, a Jew-by-choice, was dying, her husband promised her that he would work toward a unified conversion process for the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements.

Since 2002, Caplan, a former Jewish Federation president, has been the primary funder of the beit din, along with some of his friends. Caplan recently announced the court should seek funding elsewhere, according to Rabbi Jerrold Goldstein, the beit din’s secretary.

“He feels he’s guided it through the first years to make it all possible — and he’s right,” Goldstein said.

Caplan will continue to fulfill his promise to his wife and is investigating funding for a communitywide mikvah, or ritual bath.

Rabbi Richard N. Levy, director of the School of Rabbinic Studies on the Los Angeles campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism (UJ), helped found the organization and serve as its co-chairs. As the beit din gained momentum, two-dozen rabbis from the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements joined the court. To date, the Sandra Caplan Bet Din has trained 96 dayanim, rabbis who can perform conversions.

Since its founding, the beit din has overseen the conversions of 107 people.

Goldstein and Rabbi Dan Shevitz, the av bet din, or the head of the court, insist the court is not closing, but is instead seeking other funding and structuring opportunities. They hope the court will be operational at the end of the month.

“There are fewer and fewer things that the denominations can do cooperatively with one another. The Jewish community has become splintered to an unacceptable degree,” said Shevitz, who is the rabbi of Mishkon Tephilo in Venice. “Therefore it’s incumbent upon us for whatever we can do together we should do together. Welcoming converts not to one denomination or another but to the totality of the Jewish people — if we can do it, we have to do it.”

For more information, visit scbetdin.us.

InterfaithFamily.com Celebrates 200th Issue

Do the terms “interfaith family” and “interfaith outreach” seem to be everywhere you turn these last few years?

If so, that’s not only due to the rise in intermarriage, but perhaps because of the popular Web site catering to issues for this growing population, at InterfaithFamily.com. The Web magazine, published biweekly since November 1998, will post its 200th issue on Jan. 16.

“InterfaithFamily is a nonprofit that provides resources and services to couples with one Jewish partner and one non-Jewish partner,” said Micah Sachs, the publication’s online managing editor.

The Web magazine, which has 20,000 unique visitors per month, primarily features original personal narrative articles on topics of interest to interfaith families and couples, focusing on holidays, birth ceremonies, bar mitzvahs, weddings and mulitcultural relationships. It also features articles from other publications of interest to interfaith families.

The Web site provides a database of programs that are friendly to interfaith families, and does advocacy in the Jewish community to be more welcoming to interfaith families. This year they will host a conference of “outreach professionals” in Pennsylvania, and create a rabbinic resource on the subject of interfaith marriage.

Although the mission of InterfaithFamily.com is to “encouraging Jewish choices,” Sachs said, “by the same token, we’re very accepting of interfaith families where they are.

We advocate to the Jewish community to be more welcoming to interfaith families regardless of where they’re at. When you close the door to someone who’s on the fence you have no chance of influencing their decision.”

OU Offers $20,000 Award for Best Unaffiliated Outreach

The Orthodox Union (OU) is offering a grant of up to $20,000 to a member synagogue that can create an outreach program targeted at unaffiliated Jews with minimal or marginal synagogue involvement. The program should be able to be replicated by other communities.

The initiative, made possible through the OU’s Department of Community Services and the Pepa and Rabbi Joseph Karasick Department of Synagogue Services, comes at a time when the assimilation rate in the North American Jewish community is hovering at 50 percent or above, and there are a large number of unaffiliated or marginally affiliated Jewish individuals and families, according to the OU press release.

The award is intended to support a variety of activities in the area of outreach, including discussion series, multifaceted conferences, symposia, public forums, and hands-on learning experiences, among other initiatives.

This is not the first time the OU has made a large grant available for synagogue programming. Last year, the OU awarded grants of up to $20,000 for unique programs having a positive impact on their communities and synagogues. The programs included Israel action; education for children and adults; and lay leadership development, among others.

“Last year’s grants program was so successful that the OU was determined to bring it back,” OU President Stephen J. Savitsky said. “While last year’s programs touched on many aspects of Jewish life, given current Jewish population statistics the OU decided to dedicate the new initiative solely to outreach.”

“Outreach is one of the ways we show our care and love for our fellow Jews,” OU Executive Vice President Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb said. “With this grant, the OU is proud to encourage our synagogues to think of creative new approaches to involve more people in Jewish life.”

Applications are due at OU headquarters by March 1, 2007. Applicants will be notified by letter on or before March 29, 2007.

For an application more information, visit ou.org or call Frank Bushweiz at (212) 613-8188.

Chasids in the Hood (or Not)


It’s one of the quirks of the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. There’s a movement that owns a huge block on Pico Boulevard right in the middle of the hood, runs a preschool,elementary, middle and high school for girls on that same block, has official or unofficial connections with six shuls in the area, has one of the higher-profile brand names in the Jewish world and yet, strangely, you walk around the hood and you don’t really feel their presence.

I’m talking about Chabad-Lubavitch.

They have two shuls on Robertson Boulevard, both south of Pico. The one closest to Pico — commonly called the Yemini shul, after its founder and leader Rabbi Amitai Yemini — has been in the area the longest. The other shul, farther south, is a small minyan called Chabad of Beverlywood.

On Pico, you’ll find one minyan officially connected to Chabad — a tiny weekly minyan in their Bais Rebbe building — and three independents: a Persian Chabad near Cresta Drive; a shul near Beverwil Drive recently opened by Rabbi Eyal Rav-Noy, who used to run a branch of Chabad’s Jewish Learning Institute, and finally, near Robertson is Bais Bezalel, the biggest Lubavitch synagogue on Pico, also known as the Rabbi Lisbon shul.

So with all this presence, how come Chabad is so, er, quiet around here?

In a way, it’s an easy answer: Chabad doesn’t make a lot of noise in areas where people put on tefillin.

They thrive in nonobservant communities, where their unconditional love for every Jew, and their flair for promoting mitzvahs, make them highly visible. For more than 50 years, Chabad has taken this outreach model throughout the world and has lit up thousands of communities with a tireless, single-minded focus on “giving you” a mitzvah.

The problem is that here in the hood, most of the mitzvahs are already taken. The soul of the hood is clearly Modern Orthodox, with the majority of Jews already observant and affiliated with one or more congregations, which cater mostly to their members. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone if there isn’t a market in the hood for Chabad-style outreach.

Of course, I had to meet a rabbi who thinks all this is baloney.

He’s a chabadnik who lives in the hood and who believes that there is, in fact, a market for outreach in this part of town. He doesn’t just believe it, he lives it.

In truth, he does outreach all over Los Angeles — with an emphasis on the Westside — but he has a special place in his heart for the hood, maybe because he lives and hangs out here. He’s like a gold prospector. He loves, for example, those buildings on Bedford and Wooster avenues, where he has discovered plenty of single, unaffiliated Jews who are now on his mailing list and come to his outreach events.

He recognizes that the hood is more of a post-outreach neighborhood, where Jews come to pursue their Judaism after their Jewish spark has been lit, usually elsewhere. But that doesn’t faze him. He thinks there’s a fair amount of unaffiliated Jews in the hood, but they are hidden (I think some of them are hiding). Either way, he says that even if there’s a tiny amount, he wants to reach them all.

His name is Rabbi Mendel Schwartz, and for the past few years he has been running the outreach organization called Chai, started 20 years ago by his father and former Chabad emissary Shlomo Schwartz (I’ve rarely met a Jew in L.A. who hasn’t heard of “Schwartzie”; I go to a lot of events, and he or a look-alike is at all of them). Chai, like the other independents, does not fall under the official Chabad umbrella, and it is neither a shul nor a location.

Rather, it’s a nimble guerrilla outreach operation that uses cool events to bring Jews to Judaism. A Purim party at a comedy club; a haimish Shabbat “dinner for 30 strangers” at Schwartzie and Olivia’s (his wife and partner); High Holiday services at the Writer’s Guild; a Chanukah lighting party in a minimansion. Because they move between venues, they supplement the work of other shuls. Their outreach feeds the shuls for inreach.

But while Chai may be eclectic and independent, their inspiration is classic Lubavitch: using mitzvahs to light Jewish sparks.

This, for me, is the Chabad genius: a knack on the deed, not the talk. They don’t get turned on by grand debates that lead to more grand debates. While the Jewish world agonizes over “profoundly important” issues, Chabad agonizes over getting to Kinko’s on time to get their flyers out for their Chanukah event.

And at Chanukah time, all Chabads make noise. Here in the hood, the Yemini shul had their big outdoor bash at the Wells Fargo parking lot on Saturday night, with the hot band, 8th Day (major sound system). Across the hood, many Lubavitchers have placed large portable menorahs on their cars (they were part of a Chabad citywide parade Monday night) and a giant menorah billboard is on the wall of their Bais Rebbe building, to go along with the actual menorah in front of the building.

There’s no doubt: Hood or no hood, outreach or inreach, Chabad salivates for Chanukah.

It’s the holiday that embodies, through one simple icon, what the Lubavitch movement yearns for all year long: a chance to make observant Judaism shine. With thousands of public menorah lightings around the world, they proudly shine a light on the Jewish faith, on the freedom to practice that faith, and on the value of doing another mitzvah.

They are the Nikes of the Jewish world: They believe that if you just do it, the mystical power of the mitzvah will win you over, and your heart and mind will inevitably follow. And if you live in Los Angeles, where might that lead you?

I’m guessing right back here in the hood, to look for a house.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Live in the ‘hood: Davening at Aishhhhhh


You walk into an elegant, minimalist little building on the corner of Pico and Doheny in the heart of the hood. It’s Shabbat, and you’ve come to pray.

You go through a narrow hallway, where you pass a few small conference rooms filled with books. Some congregants are milling about as you make your way to the big wooden doors of the sanctuary. You open the doors. The davening has already started, and you quietly find a chair. There is a modern mechitzah, made of blond wood,that is perfectly centered to give equal space to the men and women. The people are appropriately dressed; suit and ties for the men (some in black hats), and modest but elegant attire for the perfectly coiffed supermoms.

You are now inside the eighth wonder of the world: A shul where no one talks.I don’t mean a shul where they tell you not to talk, or where they have signs asking you not to talk; there are plenty of those. I mean a shul where really no one talks. Nada. Not a peep. And on the rare occasion that an unsuspecting newcomer will, say, utter a word that’s not in the prayer book, a supersonic shhhhhhh will immediately enter his airspace, guaranteeing that the violation will have occurred twice simultaneously: first and last.

At the Aish Center for People Who Don’t Do Small Talk, absolute silence during davening has been the norm for many years. Talk to the people who run the place, and they’ll give you a matter-of-fact explanation: It’s the right thing to do, and it’s the halacha (Jewish law). I did my own research and, yes, there is a source in the Talmud. (Did you think there wouldn’t be?)

But that doesn’t explain everything. Why would an outreach organization do something as extreme as enforce a no-talking rule in their shul? After all, isn’t outreach all about talking and hand-holding and explaining? Well, yes and no.

You see, there’s a question that all outreach organizations must eventually face: After years of doing successful outreach, is there a point where you must also do some serious inreach to keep your regulars happy?

In the case of Aish, a little history will help. Over the past two decades in Los Angeles, Aish has grown from a tiny outreach outpost to a real community. As newcomers became old-timers, their needs evolved. Many of them wanted more than the introductory fare Aish is famous for. Some started defecting to more hard-core shuls like Anshe Emes. Some started wearing black hats. This was to be expected: Aish has always attracted a serious, no-nonsense crowd. People in the Aish community take their Judaism very seriously, so it’s not surprising that as their learning and their families grew, they would expect more and more from their “outreach center.”

The synagogue became the natural place to cater to the old-timers. Aish groomed a new generation of leaders and Torah teachers, some of whom give regular classes at the synagogue. But Aish didn’t stop there. They delivered on the serious davener’s ultimate fantasy: a schmooze-free minyan.

It was a classic trade-off. You might turn off some new people (and from what I hear, they do), but in return, you keep your old-timers happy, and in the bargain, you develop a certain pride of sacrifice: “We believe so much in the sanctity of prayer, that we are willing to risk turning off some Jews.”

For an outreach juggernaut, that’s no small potatoes.

Of course, it helps that Aish has a whole array of other vehicles to reach out to the unaffiliated and the disconnected: special classes, singles events (they created the highly successful Speed Dating), Discovery seminars, trips to Israel, documentary films, a major Web site, even beginners’ services on Shabbat and the High Holidays.

But when it comes to the main davening, well, chalk one up for the old-timers. Membership has its privileges, and the no-schmooze sanctuary is high on the list.

Personally, I’m ambivalent about this zero-tolerance policy on shul schmoozing. I see the value of a prayer service where the emphasis is on the prayers and the praying. There’s a collective energy that sort of transports you to a higher place. It’s davening with a purpose.

My problem is with the emphasis on zero, as in zero tolerance.

Honestly, could we really have survived so long without some schmoozing in shul? Could we have accomplished so much? How do we know that Maimonides didn’t get the idea for his “Guide to the Perplexed” from conversing with a perplexed congregant during the Shabbat mussaf prayer, circa 1172? Or that Herzl didn’t use the little time he spent in sanctuaries to schmooze with big machers so they would help fund his Zionist dream?

OK, I’m reaching, but if just about every shul on the planet allows at least a little bit of schmoozing during davening, there must be a good reason. I bet you a lot of it has to do with the fact that shul time is often the only time people get to connect with each other; so they look forward to their weekly schmooze, as much as they look forward to the Shemonei Esrei, or to the ketchup-laden cholent.

In a schmooze-friendly shul, you greet your buddy whom you haven’t seen since last week, and, during those davening lulls, you find out if the kids are OK, did he get your invitation to the AIPAC event, does he know a good dentist, did he understand the rabbi’s sermon and so on until Kiddush. It might not be very noble or pious, but hey, it’s real and it’s haimish, and, dare I say, it’s even a little Jewish.

I guess my issue with the zero-tolerance policy is that it creates the illusion that Maschiach is already here. It’s so bloody perfect! And I’m so bloody not! Whatever happened to the notion of work in progress? Do my friends at Aish realize what it feels like to be surrounded by all this quiet perfection? Can’t they just call a meeting of the old-timers and ask them to lighten up just a teenie little weenie bit?

If they invite me to the meeting, I will share with them this little insight: Keep making your davening inspirational, keep looking for captivating melodies that move the soul and everyone will be so into it, you’ll never have to go shhhhhhhhhhhh.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

To comfort me, first comfort yourself


People have been generous.

During the past two decades I have assisted in creating caring communities that extend themselves to people in their midst at
profound turning points.

These times of need include both times of tragedy and times of great joy. Baby namings, weddings, illnesses, communal catastrophes, and shiva minyanim, call forth different emotions. All of them have their share of anxieties. All of them take a village.

During these months of cancer treatment, I have been blessed with a village, giving me rides, food and comfort when I am in need, and respecting my privacy when I crave solitude.

“How can I help?” people ask. Aside from the practical help that is often needed, there is the less tangible assistance that often creates anxiety on the part of the ones who seek to help. People often stay away for fear that they will say the wrong thing.

That unease is unnecessary, to paraphrase the Torah, for the right thing is as near to you as breathing. If you help appropriately, you, and those you help, will benefit greatly.

The wisdom to help others is not privileged information. It is taught to all of us through our life experiences.

Hearts that are both caring and helpful, marry self-knowledge and the ability to attend to others. Therefore, when we seek to provide comfort, we look into our own lives for guidance.

I’d like to explore some of these deeper aspects of bringing comfort.

Bikur cholim is the sacred obligation of visiting the sick. Its principles apply to any outreach to people at vulnerable times.

Performing this mitzvah is not about helping the less fortunate.

It is not about doing a good deed.

It is a way of cultivating a relationship with the deep and rich nature of what it means to be human.

If you do this effectively and with compassion, it will help others. It will also make your life more meaningful. It will open your heart. You will live more fully. Ironically, the more you receive from your visits, the more skilled you become in the art of helping others.

A good visitor is more than a well-meaning person who comes with urgent good intentions, whose need to find just the right words can communicate anxiety more than care.

We all want to make things better. We want to do the right thing or find the phrase to transform the difficulties.

But guess what? We can’t fix it. We can’t take away the pain of loss. We can’t heal a chronic illness, bring back the dead or force family members to behave appropriately.

We can, however, make a difference.

A first step in learning to comfort suffering is to come to terms with our own powerlessness. Ironically, this relieves suffering. Struggling with this understanding gives us access to the paradoxically profound and simple skill of visiting. Understanding that we can’t do the impossible takes away some of the urgency. We can focus not on changing what can’t be changed, but on being present.

Knowing that we don’t have to rescue makes it easier to help. Knowing that caregiving has limits makes it less threatening for those who want to help but stay away in fear of not knowing what to say. We’re off the hook with regard to performing magic tricks of healing. All we can really do is to create a place where those to whom we offer comfort feel heard and protected.

The most important thing we offer as comfort is our own comfort. When we are fluent with some of life’s profound issues and communicate this either in words or in silence, we are helpful. We communicate that we are present and unafraid. The irony is that we become capable of serving in this way, by taking care of ourselves. We do this by cultivating our own soul and exploring our own relationship to life’s challenging questions.

Think back on your own difficult challenges. What helped you get through them? What did not help? Was there anything said that made it easier for you to get on with your life?

Over and over, I hear from people that what helped was not a cogent bon mot or profound piece of advice. It was the gift of compassionate attention with which someone validated the experience and provided presence and lack of judgment. This was offered without intruding into the person’s private world or forcing them to move beyond their comfort zone. It can happen in silence.

It can come with a light touch or the subtle expression of care. Above all, the feeling is communicated that the person being visited had permission to be exactly as he or she needs to be, be it tearful, angry, cheerful, silent, or confused. Rarely are these reassurances expressed verbally.

This kind of presence says more about whom the visitor is than about what he or she says, does or knows.

It reflects the visitor’s own work on the deep issues of his or her own life, which makes it possible to comfortably reach out to others.

That comfort gives comfort.

Knowing that we don’t have to rescue makes it easier to help.

Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist. She is the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001), a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a faculty member of the Academy for Jewish Religion.

Nessah president blazing trail for Iranian women


Dr. Morgan Hakimi has a variety of roles — psychologist, Jewish activist, wife and full-time mother. But it’s her position as president of the Nessah Educational and Cultural Center in Beverly Hills that has captured the attention of the L.A. Persian Jewish community.

In this Persian Orthodox culture, where leadership is traditionally dominated by men, opposition followed Hakimi after she was first elected president in 2004. However, Hakimi’s recent reelection has inspired her to step up her challenge to other women to get involved.

“I have always felt that Nessah could be an incredible bridge for more women to participate in our community, for younger American Jews of Iranian descent to connect with her heritage and for American Jews to become more familiar with us,” she said.

Skepticism from critics has died down since her initiatives have led to a substantial increase in membership within the last two years. People are packing Nessah’s two sanctuaries during Shabbat services, and crowds of previously disenfranchised women — both younger Persian Jews and non-Persian Jews — are participating in greater numbers in center programming Hakimi developed.

She credits outreach to and inclusion of the larger Jewish community for the synagogue’s growth. Hakimi has turned to a more American model of running a synagogue — setting up a membership system, establishing support groups for single parents and adding more events for its younger congregants.

“My greatest asset is having a diverse staff of Iranians, Americans, Hispanics and African Americans that are not afraid to work together,” Hakimi said. “We purposefully chose a new executive director in Michael Sklarewitz and new program director in Robin Federman, who are American, in order to better serve our community and bring us closer to the greater American Jewish community.”

Nessah’s Rabbi David Shofet praised Hakimi’s outreach efforts to younger Iranian Jews and said he has noticed more women at the center since she took office.

“In my eyes, women are more important because they are the mothers of the next generation,” he said. “If they are committed to Judaism and are affiliated, they can hand it on to the next generation. Otherwise there will not be a continuity of Judaism.”

After Hakimi’s election two years ago, participation of women in religious services became a lightning-rod issue on both sides of the mechitza in the Orthodox congregation. Traditionalists sought to keep women out, and more liberated women demanded greater involvement. Hakimi has approached such situations with diplomacy in mind, talking with both sides to find acceptable common ground.

“I am not here to create a revolution. I’m here to bring awareness and understanding about a lot of issues in our community, including those involving women,” Hakimi said. “I was raised in an egalitarian family, so I’m not bitter toward men, and I don’t have an attitude of fighting when I approach the rabbis or men. That’s why they are welcoming of my suggestions to include everyone in our programs.”

Hakimi’s election as president set a precedent at Nessah, which she continues to build on slowly. Eight women now sit on the center’s board of directors, with more women serving in committee and staff positions. At the congregational level, young women are now welcome to celebrate a bat mitzvah by giving a d’var Torah during the daytime Shabbat service.

Nahid Pirnazar, a member of the Los Angeles-based Iranian Jewish Women’s Organization, said that Nessah could stand to have greater inclusion of women in religious services.

“But Dr. Hakimi has certainly helped [us] take a lot of positive steps toward greater participation of women,” she said.

Pirnazar, a UCLA professor of Judeo-Persian history, said Hakimi is the first from her generation to achieve a leadership role in the local Iranian Jewish community, and that she shares good company with Jewish women in Iran who took leadership positions in the early 20th century.

Hakimi is also encouraging young women to develop their own programs at Nessah and to make their voices heard.”Dr. Hakimi has been an incredible mentor in my life in demonstrating to me the unique qualities women in leadership can bring,” said Rona Ram, a 22-year-old Nessah volunteer. “What we, as young females, have noticed is the overriding respect and appreciation the entire congregation gives her as she speaks.”

Hakimi said that when issues of change come up, she anticipates resistance. But she says her aim is to slowly press for greater involvement of women in community activities.

“The Iranian Jewish woman has a quiet strength that is only now coming to the surface. I’m here to say they can have it all, but it will take time _ it will not happen overnight, and they must show a desire and commitment to taking part in leadership roles,” Hakimi said.

For more information about the Nessah Educational and Cultural Center, visit www.nessah.org or call (310) 273-2400.

‘Moishe Houses’ provide post-Hillel hangout for 20-somethings


Say you’re a few years out of college, living with friends and working in a low-paying job for some do-good organization. You don’t go to synagogue, but you miss the camaraderie of your college Hillel, and you like to invite people over for Shabbat meals.

Imagine if someone was willing to pay you to keep doing it?
 
That’s what’s offered by Moishe House, a fast-growing network of subsidized homes for 20-something Jews committed to building Jewish community for themselves and their peers.
The project was launched less than a year ago by The Forest Foundation, a Santa Barbara-based philanthropy. The foundation’s executive director, David Cygielman, 25, says the goal was to give young activist Jews the financial freedom to focus on creative programming designed to reach other young, unaffiliated Jews.

To the people living in these houses, it’s a terrific gift.
 
“We were already having Shabbat dinners three or four times a month and then they came along and said, ‘We’re looking for people doing what you’re doing. Keep it up, and we’ll support you,'” said Jonathan Herzog, 29, who lives in the Seattle house with his sister Norah and two friends.
 
The project is a validation of these young Jews’ efforts to create a Jewish home for an age group they feel gets lost in the communal shuffle.
 
“After college there’s no more Hillel, and they don’t join the Jewish community until they have families,” Cygielman noted.
 
The first Moishe House opened last December in San Francisco. Seattle was next in February, joined quickly by houses in Boston and Los Angeles.
 
New ones are to open in October in Oakland, Washington, Uruguay and Nigeria, and the plan is to have 12 houses up and running by next year.
 
Except for the Nigerian house, which is a one-man outreach operation, they all follow the same formula: Three or four Jews in their 20s receive a rent subsidy of up to $2,500 a month, along with $500 for programming, and are expected to become a communal hub for young Jews by hosting Shabbat meals, card games, Yiddish lessons, film nights, book discussions, neighborhood clean-ups and other social, intellectual and civic-minded activities.
 
Residents say the formula works because it lets young people organize events they themselves would want to attend, rather than having something imposed from above by a synagogue or JCC.
In many ways, it’s the bayit of the 21st century. But unlike those communal Jewish homes of the 1970s and ’80s, which usually were sponsored by Zionist youth groups, residents of Moishe Houses don’t subscribe to a particular ideology.
 
The focus varies according to residents’ interests: The houses in Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco host a lot of poker parties and film nights, while the Boston house is more involved in social action.
 
Houses have great freedom, Cygielman says, so long as they meet the minimum requirements: hosting eight to 12 events a month, making weekly reports, maintaining a Web site and reaching out to young people. Funding can be withdrawn if a house doesn’t perform.
 
“I won’t tell them what’s a wrong program or a right program,” Cygielman said. “I don’t care, so long as they’re building community and lots of people are coming.”
 
Maia Ipp, 24, moved into the San Francisco house in June. She runs a women’s group and a cooking club that is working its way alphabetically through the world’s cuisines.
 
Her parents once lived in a bayit sponsored by Habonim, a Labor Zionist youth group, but Ipp prefers the Moishe House model.
 
“We’re not affiliated with a movement that has a belief system, which frees us to do new, fresh work and engage young adults in ways other movements and campus groups can’t,” she said.
 
One recent evening, the four young residents of the San Francisco house got together for their weekly meeting. They sat around the large table in the dining room, which opens onto a large patio they use for Shabbat dinners and holiday parties.
 
David Persyko, 25, started hanging out at the house soon after it opened.
 
“I found myself really attached to being part of a Jewish community again,” he said. “Some of my fondest memories growing up were from Camp Swig, and coming here, I felt that rush of support I hadn’t felt in 10 years.”
 
He moved in in June and now runs poker night, which draws a group of guys every three weeks to “vent about the women in our lives,” Persyko said.
 
Aaron Gilbert, 24, runs a book club. The books aren’t Jewish, but the participants are, and talking about the books leads to talking about other things.
 
“It’s really intimate. We hang out, catch up on each others’ lives,” he said.
 
The house holds a big Shabbat dinner once a month and sponsors a softball team called the Matzah Ballstars. But the events and programs are secondary to the real draw.
 
“At our core, we’re four people who live in a house and we’re inviting people over. That’s appealing to people like us. It’s not institutional,” said Isaac Zones, 24, national director of the Moishe House network and a founding member of the San Francisco house.
 
On a table in the corner is a silver-toned bust of Zones’ grandfather, a man who founded his business empire with money he won playing poker. Zones makes sure the statue is always there during games.
 
The Moishe House concept is still in its early stages, and some things need to be tweaked. For example, the Los Angeles and Seattle houses are trying to beef up their social action component, while the Boston house is being encouraged to offer more “fun events,” Cygielman said.
 
It’s all part of figuring out what constitutes a Jewish community, or even a Jewish event. Must it be something devoted purely to a Jewish ritual or Zionist goal? Or is it enough to bring together a bunch of Jewish people to shmooze and eat?

Wanted: someone to help suffering Jews


One day, Rabbi Barbara Speyer went to a Los Angeles-area nursing home to provide emergency chaplaincy services — spiritual comfort and care — to a dying patient. When she arrived, the administrator said to her, “Why do you guys charge for this? This should be voluntary!”
 
Speyer was not on staff with the facility, and her schedule is more than full. She works full time as a chaplain at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital and serves on the Red Cross Disaster Team. She is also a community chaplain with the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, which is the hat she was wearing when she went that day to the nursing home.
 
“When your dishwasher breaks, don’t you call a plumber?” Speyer responded to the administrator. She had driven out to the Valley in Friday morning traffic for a fee that would barely cover the cost of her mileage, and she couldn’t believe the administrator’s attitude, although it was one she had encountered many, many times before.
 
“Why is spiritual counseling something you should give for free?” she said recently. “People feel as Jews, we’re supposed to care for one another. But we have multiple needs in the community, and people do not understand what is involved in maintaining and sustaining a Jewish community.”
 
Indeed, the Jewish community has many needs that require funding, manpower and programming, and they are often called “crises”: There is the Israel crisis, the intermarriage crisis and the disengaged youth crisis.
 

But the one crisis hardly spoken of is the aging crisis: Some 23 percent of the Jewish population nationally is older than 60, compared to 16 percent in the general population, according to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001. In Los Angeles, between 1979 and 1997, (the last survey of Los Angeles’ Jewish population), for example, the number of Jews older than 65 grew from 11.1 percent to 20.4 percent. Put simply, the Jewish community is aging rapidly — and not necessarily healthfully, as medical advances in areas such as chemotherapy and kidney dialysis prolong life spans, while also sometimes adding extra years spent in hospitals, nursing homes, under medical treatment.
 
Who will provide spiritual care for the needy?
 
The crisis, for those involved, like Speyer, who is past president of the National Association of Jewish Chaplains, is not merely physical care — Medicare is a benefit afforded these people — her concern is the huge gap in provisions for another very important kind of sustenance.
 
“There is very little spiritual care being ministered to those who are in need,” she said. “I mean, we all need spiritual care. We have a large society of the elderly who spend their time alone,” either at home or in nursing homes and often not affiliated with any synagogues or religious organizations. “No one is attending to the needs of these people.”
 
“People are becoming more aware that there is more than just the curing process. There’s also the healing process that must go on with a patient and his or her family,” said Cecile Asikoff, national coordinator of the association, the umbrella organization for national and international professional Jewish chaplains, totaling some 300 members. A chaplain is a spiritual counselor who provides guidance, comfort and care to people in institutions — hospitals, nursing homes, prison and the military, and the National Association of Jewish Chaplains sets standards and can qualify Jewish chaplains.

“An important element in the healing process is the spiritual process. The healing process can be helped by confronting the spiritual issues of, ‘Why me, why now?'” Asikoff said.
Which is where the chaplain comes in — or should come in — to offer spiritual guidance and counseling, to sit with the patient and his or her family.
 
“A person is not just his or her disease any more than he or her eye color. The disease is part of who the person is. Part of the pastoral piece is helping people come to terms with very difficult, life-threatening or life-ending conditions, the piece of transitioning from one place in life to another place in life, the elderly, the transitioning piece of hospice, those are all pastoral pieces that are not outside his or her illness or medical condition,” Asikoff said.
 
In 2002, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles published a study, “Services to Jews in Institutions,” originally sparked by the United Way’s elimination of a prison chaplaincy program. The 42-page study was divided into two parts: “Jews in Prisons,” and “Jews in Hospitals and Nursing Homes.” Although the first part sparked the study, the second half was what attracted people’s attention.
 
“There is a significant shortage of trained volunteers, chaplains and others to meet the needs of those in hospitals, nursing homes and hospice. Not enough professionals are entering and remaining in these fields,” the study reported.
 
This is something that people like Asikoff and Speyer know very well: Many elderly and sick Jews need spiritual care and are not receiving it. And there are not enough people who can provide it.
 
The concept of chaplaincy originated among the Christians, though, bikur cholim (visiting the sick) is considered one of the most important mitzvahs in the Torah.
 
Historically, members of a Jewish community and rabbis have attended to sick people. But these days, for many of the unaffiliated sick — and even those who are affiliated — a rabbi’s time is often not sufficient to provide real care.
 
Rabbis often serve vast communities and with those communities come myriad other obligations, like weddings, bar mitzvahs, speeches, functions, counseling and fundraising. Often rabbis have time only to visit the terminally ill and even then not on a regular basis.
 
Still, with equal rights for all religions, the demand has been increasing. Many institutions have begun to seek out Jewish, as well as Christian ones, and, of late, Muslim, Buddhists and many other religions. And the requirements are stringent: A professional chaplain today must be board certified, having completed 1,600 hours of clinical pastoral education working at a hospital or institution.

Conejo and West Valley shuls rate high with newcomers


For a Jew who doesn’t belong to a synagogue, the West San Fernando and Conejo valleys are good places to shop around. A new report from the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) gives a snapshot of the community as a whole and an assessment of its ability to react to newcomers, including interfaith couples, racial minorities and sexual minorities.
 
The JOI presented results from “The Jewish Outreach Scan of the West Valley/Conejo Valley” during a well-attended Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance board meeting at The New JCC at Milken in West Hills on Oct. 4. The survey was funded by the United Jewish Communities’ Emerging Communities Project.
 
Last summer, the JOI anonymously e-mailed and called 11 synagogues and four community agencies in the Conejo and West Valley, assessed the effectiveness of local Web sites and interviewed 30 Jewish communal professionals. The organization has conducted similar surveys in communities such as San Francisco, Phoenix, Atlanta, Louisville, Ottawa and Washington, D.C.
 
The West Valley/Conejo Valley drew a 77 percent favorable response rate, placing it second overall behind Ottawa’s 86 percent.
 
“The biggest surprise was … how well we did,” said Carol Koransky, Valley Alliance executive director. “But it’s true, as was pointed out to us, that doing 77 percent means there are 23 percent that aren’t being reached.”
 
According to the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey, 44 percent of Jewish adults are unaffiliated, while 28 percent are moderately affiliated. With the intermarriage rate currently hovering at about 50 percent, and with only about 30 percent of interfaith families raising their children Jewish, Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky, JOI’s executive director and former vice president of the Wexner Heritage Foundation, said it’s important for synagogues to review their outreach strategies.
 
“Eighty-five percent of interfaith families are not affiliating with the Jewish community,” Olitzky said. “Unless they engage the Jewish community, it’s unlikely they’ll raise Jewish children.”
 
The scan did not compare response rates of area synagogues or agencies to one another. However, Olitzky recounted one anonymous phone call placed to a synagogue. When a receptionist told a caller to check back after the New Year regarding an “Introduction to Judaism” class for his non-Jewish spouse, the caller asked if the receptionist meant Jan. 1.
 
“The person on the phone said, ‘Honey, when I say the New Year, I’m talking about the Jewish New Year,'” Olitzky said.
 
In addition, the receptionist never asked for the caller’s contact information.
 
According to Olitzky, one of the biggest obstacles the Jewish community must overcome is its kiruv mentality, a Hebrew term that means “to bring near.” He said many synagogues wait for unaffiliated Jews to come knocking. Instead, Olitzky suggested that congregations think outside the shul and engage in what JOI calls “public space Judaism.”
 
“We spend most of our time in a secular environment,” Olitzky said. “We need to create programs where people will stumble over the Jewish community.”
 
Founded in 1988 as a vest-pocket organization for City University sociology professor Egon Mayer to conduct studies, New York-based JOI has expanded its mission over the last 10 years and now features a variety of outreach programming, including interfaith inclusion efforts and surveys of North American Jewish communities.
 
Prior to last Passover, a Conservative congregation in Northern California took part in a pre-holiday JOI program called Passover in the Aisles. Congregants spent time near a matzah display in a Palo Alto Albertson’s, talking with unaffiliated Jews shopping for their family seders.
 
Olitzky suggests this kind of activity can draw in those who might not come to a synagogue on their own; other suggestions are holding readings in bookstores, setting up tables with kid-friendly activities in front of a Target or Staples during back-to-school shopping or holding menorah lightings in malls the way Chabad does. “Why not take what Chabad does well and copy it?” he suggested.
 
Temple Beth Haverim has been doing just that for the last 10 years, holding menorah lightings at The Promenade at Westlake.
 
“We’ve just been providing it as a service for the community,” said Rabbi Gershon Johnson, who added that the Agoura Hills Conservative synagogue hadn’t looked on the activity as an outreach opportunity. He said the congregation would be more proactive this year about collecting names and phone numbers from unaffiliated Jews attending the event.

Olitzky said that adopting a retail mentality can help get people in the door, especially advertising membership discounts and free specials.
 
Debbie Green, vice president of membership at Conservative Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, said her synagogue drew in 40 unaffiliated Jews with an outreach program that advertised special no-cost High Holiday tickets. But she said follow-up has been a problem for Aliyah.
“One month later, we need to be telephoning them and offering free tickets to something else,” she said. “We’re one-time-event oriented, and we need to get beyond that.”
 

 

For more information about the Jewish Outreach Institute, visit www.joi.org.

Interfaith dialogue continues locally despite Hathout brouhaha; Sukkot huts inspires home building


Interfaith dialogue continues locally despite Hathout brouhaha
 
After the brouhaha surrounding Maher Hathout, the Muslim spokesman who received a human relations prize last month amid protests by some Jewish groups, the state of interfaith relations in Los Angeles may appear to be at a low point.
 
But in fact, that is not the case, as evidenced last week, when Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Bahá’í­s and more gathered at Sinai Temple for a dinner honoring Rabbi Paul Dubin, one of the founders of the Interreligious Council of Southern California.Interfaith dialogue is “at a high point,” said Dubin, 81, seated at a small, round table during the evening’s cocktail hour. “Fifty years ago, interfaith relations really consisted of (conversations between) Christians and Jews. Today, we have more than 10 faith groups in this Interreligious Council,” said Dubin, who helped create the council nearly 40 years ago.
 
Nearby, two Hindu monks wrapped in orange cloth, representing “the fire of the spirit,” huddled together. A Catholic priest, dressed in black with the traditional white collar, greeted a Buddhist in a brown robe and jade prayer beads.
 
A Sikh wearing a white gown and turban surveyed the room with satisfaction. “People need to see us like this more — doing things together,” she said.
 
During dinner, Jihad Turk, vice president of the Interreligious Council, sat beside a Holocaust survivor, discussing ways to deal with extremist elements within religious communities. “My father is Palestinian, and my name is Jihad,” Turk said. Nevertheless, he has come to realize that “Islam and Judiasm share so much in common. We truly are close kin.”

At another table, in between bites of salmon, sweet potato and asparagus, an Episcopal priest was talking about a trip he had taken to Israel with Jews, Christians and Muslims. Across from him, the Rev. Albert Cohen, a delegate to the council who represents Protestant churches, explained why the board decided to honor Dubin.
 
“We wanted to have a dinner, and we wanted to build it around the person we loved the most,” Cohen said. “Rabbi Dubin relates to everybody.”
 
“In our religion,” chimed in Dr. Jerome Lipin, a Jewish pediatrician, “we’d call him a mensch.”
 
As dessert arrived, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism, gave the keynote address.
 
“If we believe each of our religions is true, then how is it that all the other religions aren’t false?” he asked.
 
Dorff suggested a few ways we might believe in our own religion without negating others.
 
Humans are not omniscient, so we can recognize that our own knowledge is limited, he said. Also, if we all were intended to have the same views, then we would have been created the same. The fact that each of us is unique suggests that every one of us has an element of the sacred within.
 
Next, Dubin took the spotlight.
 
“I want to tell you why I have felt so strongly about participating in interfaith meetings and dialogues,” Dubin said. “It can be summed up in one word: pluralism. By pluralism, I mean not the toleration of another faith — I hate that word, ‘toleration’ — I mean respect and acceptance.”
 
After a standing ovation, the Rev. Gwynne Guibord, president of the Interreligious Council, announced, “Our time has ended. Go in peace.”
 
The guests dispersed into the halls of the temple. Some visitors peeked into rooms, hoping to get a glimpse of the main sanctuary.

“This is quite the place,” one said on his way out into the chilly night.
 
— Sarah Price Brown, Contributing Writer
 
Sukkot huts inspires home building for homeless
 
While many Los Angeles Jews commemorated the second day of Sukkot by eating outside in their temporary dwelling created just for the holiday, Wilshire Boulevard Temple members took the edict of the holiday even further.
 
On Oct. 8, some 300 members — adults and children — at the temple’s two locations partnered with Habitat for Humanity of Greater Los Angeles to help build real dwellings for low-income families.
 
Adults helped build housing frames, which will be used in the homes of “partner” or low-income families. The children sewed 400 pillows and made 400 welcome home signs. The congregants put together 800 outreach kits for PATH (People Assisting the Homeless) and they fed 140 families at the temple’s food pantry.
 
“The Festival of Sukkot commemorates the temporary shelter Jewish ancestors lived in during their years of wandering in the desert and represents the building of shelter,” said Rabbi Stephen Julius Stein of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in a press release. This first-time partnership between Wilshire Boulevard Temple and Habitat “helps to raise awareness and support of the need for affordable housing for local families.”
 
Habitat strives to eliminate poverty housing through advocacy, education and partnership with families in need to build simple, decent, affordable housing. Since 1990, Habitat for Humanity of Greater Los Angeles has built more than 180 homes, transforming the lives of hundreds of individuals. In the fall of 2007, the organization will host the Jimmy Carter Work Project, Habitat for Humanity International’s preeminent event. The project will bring Carter, his wife, Rosalynn, and thousands of volunteers from around the world to Los Angeles to help build or renovate 100 homes.
 
“It was a very productive day as regards to Tikkun Olam at Wilshire Boulevard Temple,” Stein said.
 
For more information, visit www.habitatla.org.
 
— Amy Klein, Religion Editor

Shop for a breast cancer cure
 
With Breast Cancer Awareness Month in full swing, M”&”Ms, KitchenAid appliances and Coach key chains have consumers seeing pink. Mattel has launched a new Pink Ribbon Barbie as a way for adults to talk with kids about the disease. Dyson is featuring a limited-edition pink vacuum cleaner and Seagate has jumped on the Susan G. Komen Foundation bandwagon with a pink external 6 gigabyte hard drive.
 
Locally, the newly opened Nordstrom at Westfield Topanga will feature Fit for the Cure, a special bra-fitting event on Oct. 21. Wacoal will donate $2 every time someone gets fit for a bra, as well as an additional $2 for each Wacoal, DKNY Underwear or Donna Karan Intimates bra purchased during the event. Also, Vons and Pavilions stores are hoping to help generate $6 million as part of Safeway’s fifth annual Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign, with proceeds from sales of pink ribbon pins and pink wristbands at checkstands going to services for patients and research. The grocers will also donate funds from purchases of specially marked products, and are making a free download of Melissa Etheridge’s song, “I Run for Life,” available to its customers.
 
Other retailers running special sales promotions include Aveda, Lady Foot Locker, Payless ShoeSource, Target and Bed Bath & Beyond.
 
— Adam Wills, Associate Editor

Water and pumpkins mark eco-friendly Sukkot


During Sukkot, families of Kesher Israel, a Modern Orthodox congregation in Washington, D.C., will gather together for a special celebration. Socializing in the synagogue’s sukkah, they will be treated to a tantalizing array of chocolate cakes and candies, accompanied by delicious cups of … tap water.
 
“Which are you enjoying more, the sweets or the water?” congregant Evonne Marzouk will ask, knowing full well that the cups of water will remain largely untouched.

This activity is a set up. It’s modeled on Simchat Beit Hashoeva, the festive water-drawing ceremony that took place during Sukkot while the Temple was standing but that is rarely commemorated today. Reconfigured, however, as part of True Joy Through Water, a new outreach program created by Canfei Nesharim (“the wings of eagles”), an Orthodox environmental organization, it’s designed to educate the primarily Orthodox community about the importance of water, its imperiled state and ways to conserve it.

“At the time of the Temple, people lived on the land and understood that if there wasn’t rain, there wasn’t food. That absolute dependence is still true today, but we don’t think about it because we live so far from the land,” said Marzouk, who serves as executive director of Canfei Nesharim, which was founded in January 2003.
 
The True Joy Through Water activities, text studies and instructive sukkah decorations have been requested by more than 30 Orthodox congregations across the United States.

In Los Angeles, at Congregation B’nai David-Judea, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky hopes to perform several of the True Joy Through Water activities with synagogue members, especially those in the youth group, in the sukkah. No formal program is planned for Young Israel of Century City, but Rabbi Elazar Muskin has distributed the materials to his congregants and is hoping that “people will take an interest in this important endeavor.”
 
True Joy Through Water is one of several programs that Jewish environmentalists are promoting this Sukkot, which begins at sundown on Friday, Oct. 6, to encourage people to take stock not only of the earth’s bounty but also of the earth itself — and to take action to repair it.
 
At the Shalom Institute in the Malibu Mountains, about 80 teenagers will be working directly with the earth on Sunday, Oct. 8, preparing the soil and planting in the Marla Bennet Israel Garden. The ninth- through 12th-graders, participants in Camp JCA Shalom’s Teen Camp weekend, will learn about Sukkot as well as their responsibility to nature, according to Einat Gomel, an environmental educator from Israel now serving as the year-round director of the Shalom Nature Center.
 
In the afternoon, the Shalom Institute is hosting a family Sukkot celebration. “We will talk about how we can help kids build a better world and make it eco-related,” Gomel said. Families will also participate in a ceremony and service in the sukkah.
 
“The fragility of the sukkah and its shelter is eloquent testimony to both our dependence on the environment and the environment’s dependence on us,” said Everett Gendler, rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanuel in Lowell, Mass., who is considered by many to be the father of Jewish environmentalism.
 
Gendler, who admits to a fondness for pumpkins stemming from an overflowing pumpkin patch he visited yearly as a Midwestern youth, invented the “Yaakov Lantern.” It’s a bright orange pumpkin, home-grown by Gendler every year, on which he carves a typical jack-o’-lantern face on one side and a Star of David on the other. Inside, he places a candle.
 
At night, the Yaakov Lantern invokes the “ushpizim,” the biblical forefathers and foremothers whom Gendler refers to as the “ancestral spirits” and also illumines the sukkah in an environmentally friendly manner.
 
“It’s hard to imagine the sukkah with wires attached,” said Gendler, who invented the first solar powered “ner tamid” (everlasting light), and espouses alternative energy sources.
 
Another long-time environmentalist, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, founder and director of The Shalom Center in Philadelphia, is hosting an expected crowd of 250 to 350 Jews, Christians and Muslims to address the question, “What can our religious traditions do to help heal the planet from the climate crisis of global ‘scorching?'”
 
Leaders from all three Abrahamic faiths will speak to the participants, who will also engage in prayer and song and build a sukkah together. In addition, they will have the opportunity to sign petitions asking for reductions in global warming and increased use of alternative energy sources, which will be delivered to national, state and local legislators.
 
“I’m hoping to have some direct impact right there on the spot, both in terms of public policy and in terms of congregations’ and congregants’ energy use,” Waskow said.
 
The event takes place on Oct. 8 and jointly celebrates Sukkot and the month of Ramadan, as well as the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi (Oct. 4). It is co-sponsored locally by The Shalom Center and is part of a nationwide effort initiated by “The Tent of Abraham, Hagar & Sarah,” a network of Jews, Christians and Muslims.
 
For Barbara Lerman-Golomb, executive director of Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), Sukkot, as a harvest holiday, is a perfect time to talk about healthy foods for a healthy planet.
 
“Many individuals who have joined community supported farms and co-ops are bringing their organically grown fruits and vegetables into the sukkah,” she said.
 
On the first day of Sukkot, Lerman-Golomb herself is slated to speak at the Conservative Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn during the morning service.
“I coined the phrase ‘energy observant,'” said Lerman-Golomb, who will present the Jewish response to environmental issues and encourage people to lead more sustainable lives.
 
In particular she will stress the problem of global warming, part of a nationwide campaign the coalition launched in August — billed as “How Many Jews Does It Take to Change a Lightbulb?” — which will culminate at Chanukah.

A congregation grows in Whittier — Hispanic outreach blooms


Something extraordinary is going on at Whittier’s Beth Shalom Synagogue, which has been in its present site east of Los Angeles since the early 1960s. As the area’s Jewish population base has dwindled — and as the Conservative congregation has aged — Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak has reached out to the Spanish-speaking community in the area.

“One of the purposes was to educate our neighbors about Judaism,” Beliak said. “But it was also to reach out to those in the Hispanic community who may have had some kind of Jewish connection: people in mixed marriages, those with a Jewish parent or grandparent or those who may have had a Jewish boss they felt close to. Was it with the hope of converting some to Judaism? I would say yes, that, too. All of the above.”

In recent years, several neighbors trickled in and converted, becoming part of the congregation, but it was last February that the real change took place. Beliak asked Argentine-born Rabbi Aaron Katz to teach a class — in Spanish — about Jewish history, philosophy and traditions. The class started with six students of Mexican and Central American background, most having been brought up in Catholic households.

Katz was surprised when the class quickly expanded, some bringing in spouses, friends and children. It was clear to him that the participants felt a deep spiritual connection to Judaism — they weren’t there merely to learn, they came for faith-driven reasons. These people wanted to practice Judaism.

Several in the Grupo Hispano, as a couple of the members referred to the group, said that they had grown up in homes with what they later realized were Jewish traditions: no eating of pork, devotion to study. They have no proof that they’re descended from those forcibly converted to Catholicism 500 years ago, but several said that the first time they stepped into Beth Shalom it felt familiar, as if they had “come home.”

After a couple of months of study, members of the group asked Katz for their own services. So, since June, in a separate room within Beth Shalom, Katz has led them in Spanish-language services, as does another Argentine-born rabbi, Daniel Mehlman.

The Grupo Hispano is also learning Hebrew prayers and songs. It has become a community within a community and now numbers about 30.

Katz said that when he came to the United States four years ago, he had no intention of becoming a congregational rabbi again. He wanted to teach and study, which he’s done at several institutions.

“When I started giving classes to this group,” he said, “I thought it was just a teaching assignment. But their interest and enthusiasm drew me in. So now I’m once again a rabbi with a community. It’s these people. They made me a rabbi again.”

Nearly everyone in the group seems to be in the process of converting or intends to do so soon. Some have already done so.

How has the existing congregation dealt with this?

“Some have grumbled,” Beliak said. “But for the most part, the new members have been welcomed warmly.”

One congregant, 80-year-old Zelda Walker, said, “It’s wonderful! I’ve seen the conversion of two already. I’m delighted to see the community take in new members.”

Other congregants echoed the same thought. Recently, the two groups had Tisha B’Av service together, and now, after the Grupo Hispano has its separate Spanish-language service, members join the English-language congregation for Torah reading and Kiddush.

“Hopefully, in the coming months we will enjoy a renaissance,” wrote Beliak in the shul’s newsletter, Mishpacha, now published in English and Spanish.
Beliak said that the new members are extremely interested in matters of faith and have revitalized his shul.

“They have a yearning for divinity, as sincere as anyone I’ve ever known,” he said. “A sense of the spiritual. They are the ones setting the standard. In their own way, they’re more interested in being observant than the existing congregation.”

“This group,” Katz said, “is intensely involved in the spiritual aspect of our religion. That’s rare in Los Angeles or anywhere else. Of course, the social part is important, but [the Grupo Hispano] is looking for something more, and so am I. For many, it’s going to be their first High Holy Days, and they’re thrilled.”

Beth Shalom is located at 14564 E. Hawes St., Whittier. Parking is at 14579 Mulberry St.

On Sept. 22 at 7:30 p.m., there will be a joint service of the two groups at Beth Shalom’s sanctuary. On Sept. 23-24 at 9 a.m., there will be separate services in Spanish and English, then the two groups will join for Torah reading.

On Kol Nidre, Oct. 1, the two groups will be together, and on Oct. 2, the Spanish-language group will have its own Yom Kippur service, then join the others for Torah reading.

For further information, call (562) 941-8744, visit bethshalomwhit@adelphia.net

From Agony to Acceptance — Documentary Delves Into Intermarriage


When Holocaust survivor Leah Welbel learns that her American granddaughter is about to marry a Christian, she cries out, “When this happened in my old hometown, my family used to sit shiva. Here they expect me to open my arms. I can’t do it.”

Leah’s agony in the documentary, “Out of Faith,” is deeply rooted in the memory of her 33 months at Auschwitz-Birkenau. But the same dilemma of rejection or acceptance is faced by other American Jewish families, half of whose children and grandchildren opt for interfaith marriages.

The film, which will have a special screening on Sept. 12 at the Laemmle Sunset, is rich in the human drama of family relationships and sharpened by the Holocaust experience, while tracing the trajectory of the American arc from immigration to assimilation.

Leah, deported from her Slovakian hometown at age 16 and in her mid-70s when the film was made, is the classic indomitable Jewish matriarch. Voluble, feisty, humorous, a born survivor, she ably made her way, first in Israel and then in Skokie, Ill.

She taught herself the intricacies of the stock market and prospered, even as she continued to labor over her gastronomic specialty, potato sandwiches. And she hasn’t spoken to her grandson, Danny, in six years, since he married a non-Jew.

Now her granddaughter, Cheryl, has announced that she will marry Matt, a Christian, and Leah tries a different tack. If she pushes Cheryl hard enough, Leah figures, maybe the new bride can persuade Matt to convert to Judaism.

Though raised in an Orthodox home, Leah is not particularly observant, not even lighting candles on Friday evenings. But by allowing her grandchildren to marry non-Jews, she insists, “I feel like a traitor … we’re finishing the job Hitler started. We’ll become extinct like the Mayas.”

Always in the background hovers her older husband, his eyes alternately dead or haunted, who worked in a Sonderkommando shoveling Jewish corpses into the crematorium. He says little but wonders, “Where was God in Auschwitz?”

Leah’s son, Michael, also married a Christian, but his wife, Betty, converted to Judaism. Not an unmixed blessing, Michael observes, since “she became more Jewish than we are. We had to reel her back in.”

A friend has a different attitude.

“If I didn’t let my son marry a Catholic, I would have lost a son,” she says.The different viewpoints toward intermarriage are reflected by the film’s producer, L. Mark DeAngelis, and director Lisa Leeman.

DeAngelis, a 36-year-old Chicago lawyer, businessman and now founder of Eliezer Films, grew up in a secular home. When Leah, a family friend, invited him to accompany her on a trip to Auschwitz some five years ago, he accepted and found both a subject for his film and a new attachment to Judaism.

“I started wondering why, when I dated a non-Jewish girl, it bothered me, which seemed almost like a racist thought at the time,” he said in a phone interview.DeAngelis has no doubt about his viewpoint now. “If our community is to have a future in this country, Jews must marry Jews. Only that way will their kids have a shot at staying Jewish,” he said.

He is now launching an outreach campaign, “Keep the Faith.”

Leeman, a veteran Los Angeles filmmaker and editor, represents, in her words, “the classic American story of assimilation.”

Her father, she said, was “a New York Jew,” her mother, a Protestant of Scandinavian descent from Idaho. Neither parent was religious and Leeman thought little about her identity until she attended a meeting of the Conference of Christians and Jews.

“At some point, participants were asked to divide into Jewish and Christian groups, and instinctively I chose the Jewish one,” Leeman said.

As the product of an interfaith marriage, Leeman has a tolerant — or ambivalent — attitude on the topic.

“I can understand that any ethnic group, Jewish, Chinese or Mexican, wants to pass on its culture and heritage to future generations,” she said. “But are they willing to do it at the price of family strife and estrangement?”

The web magazine, InterfaithFamily.com, interacts with about 20,000 Jewish visitors a month, says managing editor Micah Sachs. The webzine is not a professional counseling service, and most questions are referred to a hometown list of rabbis and social workers.

Yet, over time, Sachs and his colleagues have accumulated some pragmatic suggestions, particularly for parents struggling with a child’s interfaith relationship or marriage.

  • Your child is not rejecting you but making a personal choice.
  • Opposing or condemning your child’s love for a non-Jew is almost always counter-productive. While parents should not hesitate to stress their own attachment to Judaism, understanding and welcoming a non-Jewish partner works out better in the long run.
  • Do not insist that the non-Jewish partner convert to Judaism, unless it’s his or her own decision.
  • Your situation is not unique. Depending on the definition of who is a Jew, slightly more or slightly less than 50 percent of Jewish newlyweds between 1995-2000 married non-Jewish partners. Some 33 percent of these mixed households raised their children as Jewish. However, in families with two Jewish spouses, 96 percent raised Jewish children, according to the National Jewish Populations Survey.

“Out of Faith” will screen at 7:30 p.m., Sept. 12, at the Laemmle Sunset 5 Theatre, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, to be followed by a discussion between the audience and the filmmakers.

Admission is free, but a $10 donation is suggested. For information, contact Kim Fishman at (310) 907-5852, or e-mail outreach@outoffaith.net. For background on the film, go to www.outoffaith.net.For more information on “Out of Faith,” visit, www.Jafah.org.

After School Is Prime Game Time for Kids of All Needs


Kathryn Gaskin’s blonde braid bounces against her sweatshirt as she rounds second base under the afternoon sun. The 12-year-old’s obvious enthusiasm is not for her own athletic pursuits but for those of Angeline, a teen with Down syndrome, whom Gaskin coaches in an after-school program called Prime Time Games.

When the batter hits a grounder, Gaskin gently prompts a beaming Angeline to run. The excited youngster, clad in pink sweats and a T-shirt, jogs down the softball field and plants herself firmly on third base. She looks back at Gaskin, who claps and whoops. The two share a smile.

“I wanted to be a coach because I like sports,” said Gaskin of her involvement with the Prime Time Games program.

The Pacific Palisades resident initially took on the responsibly to fulfill an outreach requirement for her bat mitzvah last spring. The experience has satisfied more than a ceremonial obligation.

“I feel good because I’m helping other people,” Gaskin said.

Gaskin is among a group of preteens and teenagers who serve as peer sports coaches for Prime Time Games, a program of the Los Angeles-based Team Prime Time. Most of the coaches are at-risk children from low-income areas of the city, taking part in Team Prime Time’s intervention programs that combine academics, athletics and leadership training. Prime Time Games was created a year ago to include students with special needs. While the athletes clearly get a chance to shine in group sports, the young coaches thrive, as well.

“The coaches are truly responsible — with the knowledge that adults are there to support them — for the total experience of another child, and they are treated with respect and acknowledged for what they accomplish,” said executive director Peter Straus. “We have yet to figure out who benefits more, coach or athlete.”

While the majority of Prime Time Games coaches are at-risk kids from the Daniel Webster Middle School in West Los Angeles, a Title I school where the weekly after-school program is held, a small percentage are Jewish children fulfilling the community service portion of their bar and bat mitzvah requirements. The respectful interaction between the athletes and coaches is also reflected in the interaction between the Webster students and their Jewish co-coaches.

Straus, a veteran teacher and sports coach at various L.A. schools, also runs a summer camp called Prime Time Sports Camp. He noticed the void in after-school programs for at-risk kids at the middle school level and in 2001 created Team Prime Time to do something about it.

“The emphasis is not on the outcome of the games,” said Straus, adding that no one keeps score. “It’s the interaction of the kids. They bring out the best in each other.”

Prime Time Games began attracting the pre-bar mitzvah crowd as Jewish kids filtered through Straus’ summer camp. Other coaches discovered the program because of their siblings’ participation.

Adam Sperber-Compean, who will become a bar mitzvah in September, learned about the program when his autistic brother became involved. “I’m here for him, and he listens to me,” said Adam, on coaching his younger sibling.

Some of the coaches know one another from Straus’ summer camp and others attend the same school. Straus attempts to pair together coaches with these commonalities. When that’s not possible, Straus is optimistic.

“With the focus being on sports and the kids you’re helping, it breaks down barriers pretty quickly,” he said.

When the program resumes in October, coaches and athletes will meet one afternoon a week at Webster School. The coaches will attend a training program, where they will learn about working with special-needs children.

Mady Goldberg’s daughter, Elena, an 8-year-old with motor and processing issues, has blossomed in the program.

“She loves it,” said Goldberg, a Pacific Palisades resident. “She’s had the opportunity to play team sports, and in any typical scenario, that would be difficult for her.”

Goldberg said that practicing her skills in a supportive environment has helped Elena progress physically. In addition, she developed a close bond with her two coaches. As a result, Elena’s self-esteem has soared.

Jonah Gadinsky, 12, who has volunteered since December, vows to continue coaching after his bar mitzvah in November. “I definitely see how lucky I am do to be able to do the things that others can’t do,” said Jonah, a Westwood resident who is starting seventh grade.

After working almost exclusively with Bobby, a budding basketball player, Jonah is hooked.

“I feel really good for kids when they make a basket, just seeing their faces light up,” said the young coach.

Prime Time Games will resume in October.

Shopping for Jews? Clean Up on Aisle 5


Anyone who walked into Albertsons in Los Altos on a recent Sunday would have run right into Margie Pomerantz’s Passover table.

There she sat, next to the kosher food display right inside the supermarket’s front entrance. A big handwritten sign reading “Passover in the Aisles” hung down from her table, on which lay piles of Passover recipe books, haggadahs and other holiday resources.

Pomerantz and her fellow volunteers from Congregation Beth David, a nearby Conservative synagogue, were out looking for Jews. In a supermarket. Unaffiliated Jews, if possible, but they weren’t being picky.

They handed out information and collected names. Someone from the synagogue will call later with an invitation to a Shabbat service or other Jewish program.

Scenes like this, with a nonaggressive method of doing outreach, are being repeated across the United States this week and next, in dozens of communities.

It’s all part of Passover in the Aisles, an initiative conceived of by the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI).

Some Jewish groups have been doing this kind of outreach for a decade or more, but the biggest push seems to have come in the past three to five years.

It is based on the idea of “public space Judaism” — taking programs out to where people are instead of waiting for them to walk into a synagogue or JCC.

“If we wait for people to come to programs within the four walls of our communal institutions, we’ll be waiting a long time,” says Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the JOI, which provides guidance for such programs.

Passover is a particularly good time for this kind of outreach, Olitzky says, both because it is one of the most widely celebrated holidays among all Jews, even the unaffiliated, and because it requires people to go to the grocery store to buy matzah and other Passover products.

Olitzky says his outreach model has a lot in common with Chabad’s street outreach, which he admires. But he says, what “makes ours different is we are less intrusive, less discriminating. We don’t ask, are you Jewish?”

“It’s important that Judaism be shared passionately in public spaces,” Olitzky says. “That’s what Chabad does, and that’s what we do.”

Beth David’s assistant rabbi, Aaron Schonbrun, went to a JOI conference last year and says he was astounded at the concept of liberal Jews doing this kind of outreach. It wasn’t what he learned in rabbinical seminary.

“We learned at the conference that you can’t expect people to just write that check to the federation, especially not my generation,” the 29-year-old rabbi says. “We talked about how to engage Jews in Judaism, not Reform or Conservative or Orthodox, but Judaism.”

This is the second year Beth David has done Passover in the Aisles. By 3 p.m. on Sunday, after three hours in the store, there are just nine cards filled out at the Los Altos Albertsons, an hour south of San Francisco. But the volunteers have talked to dozens of shoppers.

One young woman who filled out a card was Galit Azulay, newly arrived from Israel with her husband, who is studying for his doctorate in the area.

“We’re here to buy food for the seder,” she says, adding that the couple aren’t affiliated and don’t plan to be.

She didn’t pick up any of the information, but entered the raffle for a seder plate.

Carol Greenberg also stopped by the table. A member of a local Reform congregation, she congratulated the Beth David volunteers on their outreach efforts. “I’m so excited to see you here,” she exclaims. Greenberg picked up a copy of their recipe book.

“I find that congregations’ recipes are much better than books,” she says. She also took one of the children’s haggadahs, which she plans to give to her newborn niece. “It’ll be a nice gift from her aunt, her first haggadah.”

Store manager Aide Garcia says she couldn’t be happier to host the event. “It increases our business a lot,” she confides. “It’s a way to promote our kosher food.”

The JCC in Columbus, Ohio did its first Passover outreach in a Wild Oats supermarket in 2003. They chose a new neighborhood in the northwest part of the city, an area where young, professional Jews have been moving, to improve their chances of reaching the unaffiliated.

“In the core community, we have an affiliation rate of 90 percent, versus 20 percent in the northwest, where most of the growth is happening,” says Lindsay Folkerth, outreach director for the JCC’s J-Link project. J-Link is a community outreach program created two years ago by the local federation following a demographic study of the Columbus Jewish community by JOI.

Seattle Rabbi Dov Gartenberg says his congregants “thought it was a little strange” when he set up a Passover outreach table in a local supermarket more than 10 years ago. That was before he heard about the JOI program.

He now runs food booths at a Whole Foods store before Passover and Rosh Hashanah, and has teamed up with a popular local chef to offer tastes of Jewish holiday foods. This month they’re offering a different charoset each week, along with recipes.

Gartenberg uses the tastings as a teaching opportunity. “As they taste, I say, this is what this food symbolizes, and it becomes a basis for conversation.”

 

7 Days in The Arts


Saturday, February 25

Havdallah includes a redemption song tonight. Following services at Beit T’Shuvah, con man turned rabbi Mark Borovitz talks to Rabbi Ed Feinstein about his story, as outlined in his bestselling book “The Holy Thief,” newly released in paperback.

5:30 p.m. (havdallah), 6:30 p.m. (conversation). Free. 8831 Venice Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 204-5200.

Sunday, February 26

Sephardic culture is placed center stage in this weekend’s colloquium at Cal State University Long Beach, titled “My Heart Is in the East and I in the Uttermost West.” The weekend begins with a concert of Ladino music by Vanessa Paloma and Jordan Charnofsky on Saturday, continues today with various lectures and closes with a presentation this evening on Sephardic musical traditions in Italy, Corfu, Salonica and the New World.

Saturday: 8 p.m. $5-$50. Sunday: Noon-8:30 p.m. Free. Locations on CSULB campus vary. (562) 985-4423. www.csulb.edu/programs/jewish-studies.

Monday, February 27

Jewish lit maven and Tel Aviv University professor Hana Wirth-Nesher visits us this week. Tonight, see her presentation on the writings of Grace Paley as part of the Jewish Community Library and The Jewish Federation’s Tel Aviv/Los Angeles Book Salon. Tomorrow, USC Casden Institute sponsors her talk on “The Accented Imagination: Speaking and Writing Jewish America” at Temple Emanuel.

Monday: 7:30-9:30 p.m. Free. Private residence. R.S.V.P., (323) 761-8644 or resource@jclla.org.
Tuesday: 7 p.m. Free. 8844 Burton Way, Beverly Hills. R.S.V.P., (213) 740-3405 or casden@usc.edu

Tuesday, February 28

In theaters now is Academy Award nominee for best foreign language film of the year, “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days.” The film tells the true story of the German anti-Nazi activist and heroine, and has already garnered awards in Germany — its country of origin — as well as three European Film Awards.

Laemmle Theaters: Town Center, Encino; Music Hall, Beverly Hills; Monica 4, Santa Monica; Playhouse, Pasadena. Â

Wednesday, March 1

The controversial, and now out of hiding, Salman Rushdie, is tonight’s star of the Music Center Speaker Series. The Indian-born British author’s public appearances are rare, but he speaks this evening in conjunction with his newly released novel of magic realism, “Shalimar the Clown.”

8 p.m. $45-$200. Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 271-6631. www.ticketmaster.com.


Thursday, March 2

Hillel at UCLA and the Daniel Pearl Foundation present a Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture by Larry King, on “The Art and Science of the Interview: Musings About Everything.” Hear King speak live and in person, in a talk moderated by law professor Laurie Levenson.

7:30 p.m. Donation requested. Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCLA, Lee and Irving Kalsman Campus, 574 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 208-3081, ext 107. R.S.V.P. by Feb. 27, www.uclahillel.org.

Friday, March 3

Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy with a little help from National Jewish Outreach Program. The group has organized the 10th annual “Shabbat Across America” tonight, which will have thousands of Jews across the country and Canada participating in the rituals of Shabbat prayer and dinner. Many L.A.-area synagogues are taking part, so see their Web site to find one near you.

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A.M.E., Rhythm and Jews


It's Friday night, and as I wander toward the entrance of Temple Emanuel, a Reform synagogue in Beverly Hills, an usher approaches and asks brightly, “Are you with the choir?”

I'm African American, but I'm not with the choir, at least not with the choir of Temple Bryant A.M.E. Church, which is visiting the synagogue tonight. I smile through a twinge of annoyance.

Later, as I search for a seat in the cavernous but crowded temple, another helpful-looking usher with a pile of programs catches sight of me: “You must be with the choir!”

Must I?

To be sure, some of those A.M.E. folks, some of whom are splendidly dressed in West African kente cloth, are looking like they need a little bit of direction. But the first lesson of multiculturalism may be that not all black people are churchgoers and/or singers. I could have been Jewish, for all anybody knew. As it happens, I'm not Jewish, my husband is and my married name, Kaplan, tends to throw people of all colors and religious beliefs when I show up in person. So I've learned to carry a certain sympathy for cultural and ethnic misconceptions.

But still.

Then I remind myself that I like the reason why I'm here on this Friday in February: This concert marks an early step by Temple Emanuel and Bryant A.M.E., from Leimert Park in the Crenshaw District, to develop relationships between their respective flocks. Not political, agenda-driven, public relations-conscious relationships, but ties forged the old-fashioned way — through individual conversations and personal connections over time. The bridge-building is part of a larger effort by the community organizing outfit, One L.A. (the latest iteration of the Industrial Areas Foundation), to unite Los Angeles' disparate populations around conversations on a whole host of common, quality-of-life issues.

The Rev. Dr. Clyde Oden Jr. of Bryant and Rabbi Laura Geller of Emanuel are putting their own stamp on this, starting with names: Oden calls the project “Shalom in the City,” Geller has dubbed it “Hineni, Here I Am.” Both admit they are on a long journey that has no real road map and that may take years to accomplish, if it is accomplished at all. Yet both are encouraged so far. Geller has taught the Torah at Oden's church, and he brought some congregants to temple last Friday; the two groups have already planned a joint seder and picked an L.A.-resonant theme for it: “Coming out of a narrow place.”

Oden says it's all in the spirit of creating a new model of activism, one rooted not in the leaders or agendas of yore, but in friendships.

“These won't be drive-by relationships,” says Oden, who proposed the crosstown outreach. “Our society promotes distance, and we don't know each other — Jews, gentiles, Latinos, blacks. We're kind of in the wilderness here on this project, but we're going toward the Promised Land.”

Geller says she also wants to deconstruct the management-heavy, '60s model of activism and remake it into something more meaningful and effective for today.

“One of the criticisms of the civil rights model is that Jews were perceived as helping blacks,” she says. “If we start with personal issues that matter to everybody — things like drug addiction, aging parents, emergency health care — then we'll be on equal footing.”

One L.A. organizer, Daniel May, describes the dynamics of the Emanuel/Bryant project, and others like it around town, as “moving from strangers to neighbors. It's not about issues, but commonalities. And also differences.”

I keep that in mind as two musical traditions come together tentatively, somewhat clumsily, before my eyes. Besides the black choir, the service features Jewish singer/guitarist Rick Recht. I have no idea who Recht is, but his name, pronounced “Wrecked,” sounds appropriately rapper-esque.

He turns out to be the furthest thing from that — a smooth, charismatic performer and storyteller with impeccable pop sensibilities and an occasional edge — kind of a Jewish Jim Croce. But he hits a serious sour note when he decides to turn the venerable “Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing,” a poem-cum-song penned at the turn of the 20th century that evolved into the black national anthem, into a kind of summer camp sing-along, complete with call and response.

I get the good intention, but it's mildly horrifying nonetheless. The black people look a bit stunned, though tolerant.

Then, when the Bryant choir backs up another gospel number, Emanuel's sonorous and dignified cantor suddenly erupts with a funkified solo on “Let My People Go,” complete with hand gestures and foot shuffling that must be meant to echo James Brown.

My Jewish husband seated next to me, puts his head in his hands briefly.

“Look at what my people are doing,” he murmured. “It's embarrassing.”

Maybe. But I hardly expected Jews to have that kind of rhythm, or for anybody nonblack to resist the temptation to boogie when black people give them the chance. But music is not the main point: This evening is facilitating a larger and, I believe, enlightening purpose. For that possibility alone, I'll endure 1,000 more funk faux pas. And I trust the congregants will put up with mine as well.

Erin Aubry Kaplan is a regular Op-Ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

Campus Outreach Connects Orthodox


At the Enormous Activities Fair during UCLA’s Welcome Week last September, Sharona Kaplan stepped away from her own brochure-laden table to help out at the busier Hillel table.

A first-year student perusing Hillel’s sign-up sheet seemed stuck on one question.

“So what kind of services are you looking for? Liberal, Conservative, Orthodox?” Kaplan asked her.

“The least religious,” the girl said, and Kaplan helped her mark the box for “Reform.”

That doesn’t bother Kaplan at all — each student should find what’s appropriate for him or her, she believes.

But her particular mission is to serve Orthodox Jews and to encourage observant Judaism.

Sharona Kaplan and her husband, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, both 26, arrived in September 2004 through the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus(JLIC), a program sponsored by the Orthodox Union, Hillel and the Torah Mitzion organization to serve the needs of Orthodox students.

Since the program began five years ago, it has anchored couples on 12 U.S. campuses — three of them newly placed this past September — as well as at Oxford University in England. Each couple is a young rabbi and his wife, charged with teaching classes, running Shabbat programs, ensuring that religious services and kosher food are available and providing a frum-friendly atmosphere for students coming out of the Orthodox day school world.

Over the past year the Kaplans have instituted weekly Shabbat lunches and holiday meals at Hillel, and they invite students to their home for Shabbat meals when the university is closed.

They also strengthened the daily minyans, Sharona Kaplan says, noting that her husband “wakes the boys up and drives around picking them up” to make sure they get to shacharit services on time.

In many ways, the JLIC program is similar to campus programs run by the Chabad organization. The JLIC couples, however, are sent mainly to serve students who already are Orthodox, whereas Chabad couples actively reach out to the entire Jewish spectrum.

Though JLIC couples welcome every Jew to their programs — and would be happy to shepherd nonobservant young people down the frum path — that’s not their mandate.

“The primary purpose is to serve the needs of the Orthodox population,” says Rabbi Ilan Haber, the program’s national director, who works out of Hillel headquarters in Washington. “It’s not an outreach program, it’s an in-reach to Orthodox students.”

Haber says an important aspect of the program is sending a couple to each college: “We feel there’s a need for both male and female role models for the students.”

This point is driven home on a September afternoon at Brooklyn College in New York where Nalini Ibragimov is teaching Torah to nine young women. It’s the students’ two-hour free period, which the college gives twice a week to encourage clubs and sports.

Instead of eating a longer lunch or going swimming, these nine modestly dressed students are discussing with Ibragimov, their rebbetzin on campus, the finer points of the 39 malachot, or acts of labor forbidden on Shabbat.

Nalini Ibragimov, 28, and her husband, 30-year-old Rabbi Reuven Ibragimov, were sent to Brooklyn College three years ago.

Four of the nine women in Nalini Ibragimov’s class spent last year studying in Jerusalem at all-girls seminaries. All say they’re thrilled to have the Ibragimovs on campus.

Meira Sanders, 19, says she likes “just having a rabbi you can ask questions.”

Sarah Roller, 18, says, “It’s really important to have an Orthodox woman to look up to.”

Several of the young women say the JLIC presence eases their transition from high school, where at least half their classes were on religious subjects. One-third of Brooklyn College’s 10,000 students are Jewish, but this is a first experience in a primarily secular world for these nine students, and they’re anxious for regular doses of Yiddishkeit.

“If there weren’t religious studies here, I don’t think I would have come,” Roller says.

Haber, the national program director, says that as more and more Modern Orthodox began attending universities other than Yeshiva University and its affiliate for women, Stern College, the traditional choices for this community, Orthodox leaders and parents saw the need to provide ongoing religious counseling and services to them during their campus years.

Some Reform and Conservative students look at the JLIC program and wish their movements would fund professionals on campus, too. Both the Reform and Conservative movements depend on student volunteers to do campus outreach.

“Between JLIC, Chabad and JAM,” a Southern California-based Orthodox outreach program, “the Orthodox are investing hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the Reform and Conservative are giving zero,” says Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, UCLA’s longtime Hillel director.

“If a kid wants to study Talmud,” he can benefit from the Orthodox rabbi, Seidler-Feller says. “But what if he wants to study Buber?”

The answer, for now, is that such students will have to rely on secular coursework.

Still, the goal of funding campus professionals is “important” to the Conservative leadership, says Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism. “We are trying to find the financial wherewithal to do it.”

A Reform movement leader considers such aspirations a “fantasy” for his movement, given that there are Reform students on several hundred campuses.

“I even question the efficacy of it,” says Rabbi Daniel Freelander, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, adding that a Reform rabbinic presence on campus wouldn’t solve the challenge of keeping Reform students Jewishly involved through their college years.

“The involved students are wonderful, and they crave as much rabbinic input as we can give them, but they’re a tiny minority” of the overall student population, he says. “If we put a rabbi on every campus, would [involved students] increase from 5 percent to 10 percent or 20 percent? I doubt it.”

For more information on Camp Gan Israel Running Springs, call Chabad Youth Programs at (310) 208-7511, ext. 1270.

 

Letters


Jack Abramoff

David Klinghoffer’s entreaty and Jack Abramoff’s wounded feelings ring hollow for the same reason: each expects that the fact that Abramoff used purloined funds to better the Jewish community should somehow mitigate the harm that Abramoff has caused (“Sympathy for the Devil?” Jan. 27).

Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. One cannot give tzedakah with stolen funds. The very word “tzedakah” has as it’s root the word “tzedek,” which, of course, means “justice.”

There is no justice in stealing from one to give to another, particularly where, as here, there were accolades showered upon Abramoff for his “gifts.” One of the senses of tzedakah is that of giving of yourself from your own resources; Abramoff did neither.

My greater compassion is reserved for Abramoff’s victims: the clients from whom he stole the money, his grieving father who has lost a son, his family who has lost a husband, father and putative provider. Abramoff will have room and board at the taxpayers’ expense; his family will, potentially, have nothing.

To Klinghoffer and Abramoff I would point out that nobody wants to cut off Abramoff’s head; he has already done that.

E. Hil Margolin
Carmel

Jews are not attacking or abandoning Abramoff because he’s Jewish — they’re embarrassed and outraged that he’s trying to wrap himself in the glory and good name of Judaism. “God sent me 1,000 hints that He didn’t want me to keep doing what I was doing.” Jewish or not Jewish, you shouldn’t need God to send you “hints” when we have things called laws.

Jeremy Sunderland
West Hills

Positive News

I have been meaning to write to you about your “Mensches” article (Jan. 6) since the week it appeared. I have saved that issue as it is so full of positive news about the happenings in L.A. with people and their behavior and actions.

I was hoping to suggest that since you obviously can’t put more than 10 people in at a time, wouldn’t it be fabulous to put this article and types like it in the paper quarterly? We always have a plethora of bad news, why not balance it out more with this type of journalism?

I think it’s so sad that the only feedback you received after this article was printed is how you might have conjugated the word mensches wrong. I want to thank you for doing this article and bringing these people to light. May it make us all think about what the rest of us can do to help and improve our lives and those around us.

Dena Schechter
Los Angeles

Proselytizing

The Journal’s coverage of the bonding of 1,100 Messianic Jews for Jesus and Christian Zionists at The Church on the Way should come as no surprise (“Messianics Gather for National Meeting,” Jan. 27). Jews for Judaism has warned Jewish leaders and Israeli officials that working with evangelicals is a double-edged sword and that The Church on the Way is a Trojan horse.

The Church on the Way has an ongoing messianic outreach and religious services designed to attract Jews. We know of dozens of Jewish families who were devastated after their children were converted to evangelical Christianity by representatives of this megachurch.

Christian support for Israel is a blessing. However, unfortunately, some members of our community deny or choose to ignore the threat that evangelicals pose to Jewish spiritual survival. The essence of the term evangelical is to proselytize.

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz
Jews for Judaism

Misleading Essay

Although I am hardly in the habit of penning letters in support of Bibi Netanyahu, I feel compelled to respond to Harvard student Shira Kaplan’s heartfelt but misleading essay on Hamas and Israel (“Give Peace a Shot,” Feb. 3).

Assuming the role of a modern-day prophetess, Kaplan boldly predicts that if the right-wing Likud leader is returned to office, “like in Netanyahu’s previous term in office, buses will be blowing up in the center of Tel Aviv.”

I served as an American diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv in the mid-1990s, when buses were in fact blowing up in the city and would like to set the record straight for those like Kaplan who may have forgotten the recent chronology of terror in Israel.

According to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, 141 Israelis were killed by terrorists from September 1993 (the Rabin-Arafat handshake on the White House lawn) to November 1995, when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.

During Netanyahu’s three years in power, a comparatively low number of 51 Israelis were killed by terrorists, who perpetrated two attacks, inter alia, in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market (16 and five victims, respectively). However, there were no bus bombings in Israel during Netanyahu’s rule.

I am neither Jewish nor Israeli and would never presume to tell Israelis for whom they should vote. However, I do hope that they go to the polls in March armed with both hope and information. Whatever other sins Netanyahu may have committed as prime minister, he cannot in fairness be charged with provoking terrorist bus bombings.

Mark Paredes
Los Angeles

THE JEWISH JOURNAL welcomes letters from all readers. Letters should be no more than 200 words and must include a valid name, address and phone number. Letters sent via e-mail must not contain attachments. Pseudonyms and initials will not be used, but names will be withheld on request. We reserve the right to edit all letters. Mail: The Jewish Journal, Letters, 3580 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1510, Los Angeles, CA 90010; e-mail: letters@jewishjournal.com; or fax: (213) 368-1684

 

Emergent Jews


When Rabbi Sharon Brous leads a worship service, Jews dance and sing and pray — and talk politics. Her Los Angeles-based Ikar is not a traditional congregation but rather, as she describes it, a “spiritual community” of “modern, progressive Jews” who “boldly reclaim the essence of our tradition” by engaging in soulful worship and social justice.

Brous, 32, is one of a growing number of young Jews across the country who are creating unconventional sacred communities, unbound by expectations of what a synagogue is supposed to be.

About a dozen of these innovative Jewish leaders gathered together for the first time in mid-January at a two-day conference at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley. The event was organized by Synagogue 3000, a nonprofit group aimed at revitalizing the Jewish house of worship.

To help guide these “emergent Jews,” as Synagogue 3000 calls them, the group invited another network of religious leaders who had embarked on a similar quest — only theirs was focused on transforming the Christian community.

Nearly 10 years ago, these young Christians were dissatisfied with the typical ways of “doing church.” They had grown disillusioned with what they saw as the commoditization of theology by the megachurches, with their sleek marketing campaigns and business-management styles. So they formed a network called Emergent, focused on developing communities of faith that are authentically Christian and engaged with American culture.

Hailing from a variety of backgrounds — mostly evangelical but also mainline Protestant and Catholic — these so-called “emergent Christians” refused to align themselves with any political party, calling themselves, instead, postmodern, post-liberal, post-conservative and post-evangelical.

“We’re fiercely independent,” said Tony Jones, Emergent’s national coordinator. “Our primarily affiliation is with God.”

Today, Christian emergent communities are drawing young people across the country. Services often feature live bands and take place in coffee houses or bars. Pastors preach hospitality, individual participation and the notion that all of life — not simply the church service — is spiritual.

Sharing Songs and Sacred Texts

On a bright Monday afternoon at Brandeis-Bardin, more than two-dozen emergent Jews and Christians sit in a circle. Jones, the Christian emergent leader, explains “how blown away we were by this invitation.” To break the ice, he said, he will quote Jesus.

“Well, he was Jewish,” some of the Jews respond with a laugh.

After Jones reads from Matthew’s gospel, Jeremy Morrison, a 34-year-old rabbi who runs Temple Israel of Boston’s Riverway Project for 20- and 30-somethings, said: “Tony spoke about Jesus, so I’ll talk about Torah.” He speaks of Genesis and says he hopes that today, too, will be a beginning. “I see our time together as an opportunity for us to become free,” he said.

To the strum of a guitar, the Jews and Christians join in song, repeating the refrain: “How good and pleasant it is for us to dwell together.”

Seeking a Shared Vision Despite Differences

There’s a sense in the Jewish community that traditional synagogue services are simply not moving people, particularly young people.

In response, Jews like Amichai Lau-Lavie, 36, have created new communities and styles of worship that seek to reinvigorate worshippers with a sense of awe and spirituality.

Eight years ago, Lau-Lavie, who calls himself an “emerJew,” created Storahtelling, a traveling theater company based in New York, which reenacts Torah portions, accompanied by live music. Recently, he started a “ritual lab,” a sort of laboratory for sacred experiences.

“It’s an event,” Lau-Lavie said, “not a service.” It can take place in a mall or dance club and include a DJ playing electronica music. The worship experience is nondenominational. “If anything, it’s flexidox,” he said, a mix of everything.

Dov Gartenberg, a rabbi in Seattle, recently left his perch at a conservative synagogue to start Panim Hadashot, New Faces of Judaism, an outreach organization that welcomes Jews of all denominations and stripes — single, married, intermarried — into the community. Worship revolves around what he calls “Shabbat feasts,” dinners around town and at his home. Sometimes, he sets up at a table at Whole Foods Market, where he tries to connect with Jews by giving away samples of traditional foods.

At the conference, designed to introduce these visionary Jewish leaders to their Christian counterparts, Jews and Christians broke off into groups. Lau-Lavie took a walk with a Christian emergent from Atlanta, during which they discussed their paths toward God.

Afterward, Lau-Lavie talked with excitement about how significant this was. “My grandfather, who was a rabbi, probably didn’t take a walk together with a fellow on a different path,” he said. But here he was, taking “a walk on the wild side.”

Shawn Landres, research director of Synagogue 3000, wandered from group to group. “I overheard somebody asking what it means to have a calling from God,” he said. “That’s new, I think, Jewishly, to encounter people who are not afraid to talk about that urgency, that sense of mission.”

“I think it’s helpful to think of Christianity and Judaism as sister religions,” Landres added. “Really, we are heirs to the religion that was practiced by ancient Jews in the Temple. When the Temple was destroyed, our solution as Jews was the Torah.” For Christians, it was Jesus.

The Jewish and Christian emergent leaders echoed this feeling of compatibility as they sat together, distilling their experiences in front of an audience of established, mainstream Jewish leaders, who had been invited to observe.

Both “emergent” Jews and Christians share a progressive outlook, a philosophy of welcoming and hospitality, a commitment to community and social justice. Both are using creativity to build engaging, spiritual communities.

Still, some of the Jewish leaders expressed unease about collaborating with a group that, ultimately, might believe that the second coming of Jesus depends on Jews’ converting to Christianity.

“They have a religious vision that deems my religious expression ultimately secondary,” said Morrison, who teaches young people Torah over beer and wine in Boston. “I need to know where they stand.”

Jones, the Emergent leader, tried to dismiss the concern. “The goal of a dialogue with peers of another faith is surely not to convert them,” he said.

At this point, anyway, the dialogue is just beginning. The first date is over, and now both groups must decide whether to lean in for the kiss, as Synagogue 3000 research director Landres put it. The Jewish leaders say they would like to meet again — but next time, just among themselves. They need to get to know one another before they can collaborate with emergent Christians, they say.

As for Emergent coordinator Jones, he said he would like a second date. “But,” he added, “I think it’s more up to [the Jewish emergents] than it’s up to us.”

Synagogue 3000 Shifts Focus to Leaders

Synagogue 3000 is a new group aimed at revitalizing American synagogues. The Los Angeles-based nonprofit has organized a leadership network of 18 visionary rabbis, cantors, musicians and artists. Their task: figure out what it takes to engage committed worshippers and attract the unaffiliated.

So far, the group is getting tips from unexpected places. Last June, the Jewish leaders met with Christian evangelical Rick Warren, founding pastor of the Saddleback megachurch in Lake Forest and author of the best-selling “Purpose-Driven Life.” In November, the network met in Houston with Ronald Heifetz, a leadership expert at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Synagogue 3000 also created a network of Jewish “emergent” leaders, who are starting nontraditional spiritual communities. Earlier this month, Synagogue 3000 brought this group together with their Christian counterparts and the Jewish leadership network at a two-day conference in Simi Valley. A fourth summit is scheduled for March in New York.

In addition to creating leadership networks, Synagogue 3000 established this month the first academic institute for synagogue studies. It aims to answer questions that have not been adequately addressed, such as why people go to synagogue, how to create spiritual experiences and what a synagogue space should look like.

Synagogue 3000 is the latest incarnation of Synagogue 2000, a group founded more than 10 years ago by Ron Wolfson, who teaches at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, and Lawrence Hoffman, a rabbi and professor of liturgy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.

The two shared a vision of what synagogue life could be like in the 20th and 21st centuries. Jews affiliate with synagogues more than with any other institution in the Jewish community, they agreed. But synagogues have not achieved their goal of igniting a spiritual spark in many worshippers.

Too many Jews were joining synagogues only when their children needed a religious education or a bar mitzvah. For many Jews, synagogues seemed unwelcoming places, cold and cliquish.

Wolfson and Hoffman set out to transform congregations across the country, creating a group called Synagogue 2000. The group worked with nearly 100 congregations, guiding them through a four-year process of change. But change had a price: about $7 million in grants and donations.

In 2003, Synagogue 2000 took a year and half to evaluate what it had learned and to determine the best way to move forward. The group decided that guiding congregations through a lengthy change process was too expensive. They also realized that change only happened when the leadership wanted it; willing congregations were not enough. “The clergy could make it or kill it,” Wolfson said.

So, Synagogue 3000 was a born, an organization dedicated to revitalizing synagogue life by cultivating spiritual leadership. —SPB

Simple Minds


I shared a ballroom last Saturday night with a group of people whose lives could easily inspire nothing more than pity. Like me, they were attending the annual gala of Etta Israel Center, a Los Angeles-based organization that provides outreach and services to developmentally disabled Jews and their families.

Etta Israel is one of those rare organizations that attracts support — and offers support — across denominational boundaries. So the lobby of the California Science Center, decked out for a private evening affair, was host to bearded, black-hatted rabbis and smooth-shaven, kippah-less types. There were women in cocktail dresses and women in fashionable shaidels. UCLA Hillel Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, whose politics veer left, ran into an old acquaintance, Rabbi Baruch Kupfer, executive director of Maimonides Academy of Los Angeles, and the two men joked about who was going to swing whom over to his side.

Also among these Jewish leaders and financial supporters of Etta Israel were dozens of the young adults and children whose named and unnamed challenges — cerebral palsy, autism, Down’s syndrome and others — are often used as reasons to exclude them from many things that society has to offer, like an education.

The Etta Israel Center runs programs to teach Judaism to developmentally challenged children and young adults, as well as group homes for adults (its third home will open in the Valley in June) and a popular summer day camp. It helps Jewish day schools meet the learning needs of all its students, and has trained thousands of teachers in how to help all children learn through its Schools Attuned programs.

One of the young women in its girls yeshiva program saw me taking notes and approached me.

“She wants to show you her writing,” said the educator I was speaking with. The young woman couldn’t form words, but offered me her notepad, on which she had written several rows of wavy lines. It was just lines — no words, no letters — but it was her writing. She beamed and blushed at once.

In another context, the moment could have inspired pity. But pity is cheap. Like guilt, it’s only useful as a tool to pick the locks on our hearts, to compel us to change, to act.

Surrounded by friends from her class, helped along by the educator and the people at Etta Israel — as well as by parents, like the dozens of committed ones in the room — the young woman struck me as confident and fortunate. She found herself embraced by people who wouldn’t settle for mere pity.

One of the evening’s honorees was Valerie Vanaman, an attorney whose relentless advocacy on behalf of special-needs education has improved the lives of thousands of children and their families.

“Every child is entitled to receive an appropriate educational program,” Vanaman said during her award acceptance speech. It is such a simple idea, but like most simple ideas, it takes people of great intellect to conceive it and men and women of iron will to implement it.

Conversely, the idea that people with mental, emotional or physical disabilities might be barred from partaking in a public or Jewish education is, no matter how cool and rational it may seem, the fruit of simple minds, and it takes no more ability than the slack acceptance of the status quo to realize it. Vanaman railed against challenges to opportunity and funding of special-needs students at the state level, and urged parents to contact their representatives and State Board of Education Superintendent Jack O’Connell to protest the decrease in services. “Lawyers can’t save the day,” she said. “Only parents can save the day.”

The other honoree was David Suissa, the founder of Suissa/Miller Advertising and publisher of Olam magazine. During his speech, Suissa recounted the story of Etta Israel, a teacher who, after retirement, took it upon herself to teach developmentally disabled children at Beth Jacob Congregation for 20 years. Her experiences led Dr. Michael Held to create a center in her name. Again, it was a simple idea: instead of offering pity, offer parity. Extend the beauty and benefits of Jewish learning to those most likely to be left behind. Focus teachers on the students’ abilities, working through — and around — their deficits.

The organization, which has largely focused on the Orthodox community, is looking to be of service to non-Orthodox day schools, as well. Held wants more schools to emulate the model of schools like the CSUN-affiliated CHIME Charter schools in Woodland Hills, where enrollment is 80 percent “typical” children and 20 percent special-needs children. Why can’t the Jewish community, he asked, support a Jewish high school following that model?

A simple, brilliant idea — waiting for people of iron will to make it a reality.

For more information, go to www.etta.org

 

Chabad Menorahs Gain Acceptance


Ten years ago, the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) sued the city of Beverly Hills to block the local Chabad house from erecting a 27-foot menorah in a public park near City Hall. Displaying the menorah — a Jewish religious symbol — on public property, the AJCongress argued, was unconstitutional.

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the city, allowing Chabad to put up the large candelabra. A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals later reversed the decision.

When it comes to displaying menorahs in public places, what a difference a decade makes.

This Chanukah, Chabad-Lubavitch plans to light more than 11,000 large public menorahs, from Bangkok to Miami Beach. Those lighting the Chanukah candles won’t come strictly from the ranks of America’s Chabad Chasidim; leaders of Jewish organizations across the spectrum, eager to take part in the public celebration of the Festival of Lights, will also be lighting Chabad’s candles.

The growing acceptance of the Chabad menorahs is just one example of a broader trend: As Chabad spreads throughout the United States and the world, America’s mainstream Jewish community is increasingly willing to embrace the movement, whereas in the past many Jewish organizations preferred to keep it at arm’s length.

“I think there’s less fear and more openness on the parts of both Chabad and the broader community to support all who can reach and touch Jews,” said John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York.

Chabad, though, said the recent past offers some indication of how far things have come — and where they may be headed.

“Chabad has not changed that much in a generation,” said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of the Washington office of the American Friends of Lubavitch. “The organized Jewish community has gone from being indifferent or harsh to being much more welcoming.”

Chabad insiders and observers cite several developments that highlight the change:

• Jewish federations around the country are funding Chabad projects, inviting Chabad rabbis to sit on their boards and committees and including Chabad synagogues in their listings of local places to pray.

• With each passing year, more U.S. Chabad houses become dues-based congregations — like most mainstream Jewish congregations — running on membership payments rather than simply on donations.

• Most Jewish groups no longer sue to prevent Chabad from erecting public menorahs.

• Chabad continues to secure support from Jews outside the movement, even non-Orthodox Jews like Harvard law school professor Alan Dershowitz.

The movement says its annual budget comes in at more than $1 billion, much of it raised by emissaries in the field for their own programming.

Chabad has made extraordinary efforts to reach out to Jews of every stripe, some of whom have grown to embrace the movement.

“In the market of outreach, Chabad looms large,” said Samuel Heilman, a sociology professor at Queens College.

Dancing rabbis on Chabad fundraising telethons have given the movement a public face, as have the movement’s mitzvah mobiles and the army of young Chabadniks who spend days out on city sidewalks asking passers-by if they’d like to put on tefillin or sit in a mobile sukkah and shake a lulav.

“I think that Chabad and much of Orthodoxy have come of age,” Heilman said. “Orthodoxy in general is much more a part of the discussion. Within that, there’s been a recognition that Orthodoxy is not just one thing.”

Part of the reason Jewish groups were wary of Chabad was the impression that the movement was not out simply to offer Jews positive Jewish experiences, but wanted to make unobservant Jews Chabad adherents. Chabad rejects this notion, although its officials do acknowledge that they wouldn’t mind if those who come in contact with them take on more Jewish rituals.

Jewish Interns Get Peers to ‘Come Out’


A group of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender UCLA students recently gave Queen Esther, Haman and Queen Vashti a radical makeover.

To jazz up the deliverance of the Jews from evil Haman, 10 LGBT undergrads staged “Purim for Divas.” A bisexual woman donning a black cape, Mardi Gras mask and triangular hat played the evil Haman. A drag queen resplendent in tight sparkly skirt and heels appeared as Queen Vashti; Queen Esther was a gay man in a dress — his long, brown hair flowing freely.

After the campy performance, the students drank and danced the night away. Women embraced women; men flirted with men. A good time was had by all.

The 100 or so revelers could thank the Los Angeles Hillel Council and a singular collection of “peer interns” for the memorable evening.

Nineteen students at UCLA, USC, Cal State Northridge and four other Los Angeles-area universities are part of the Jewish Peer Intern Program. They underwent training to learn how to generate excitement about Hillel and Judaism among Jewish students who are largely on the periphery of campus Jewish life.

The group’s outreach efforts appear to have paid off: Hillel said 500 Jewish students have developed a deeper connection to the community through their participation.

Around the Southland, only about one in four Jewish college students is affiliated. And these students, including LGBT, interfaith and Persian students, are frequently underserved as well as uninvolved. Instead of trying to bring them to Hillel, Hillel is bringing Judaism to them through dinners, parties and lectures tailored to their interests, said David Levy, executive director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council.

“We want to stimulate Jewish life, create Jewish energy, anything that will strengthen the Jewish community,” he said.

The program’s personalized approach has resonated with Jewish students and has created a pool of tomorrow’s Jewish communal leaders, said John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

“If you don’t start now, there won’t be anybody sitting in the leadership chairs at Jewish organizations in the future,” Fishel said. The Federation contributed $100,000 last year to underwrite the program and plans to continue its support, he added.

Hillel recruited interns — who earned $2,000 apiece — by advertising in college papers, mass e-mailings and word-of-mouth. The strong response allowed the group to tap talented Jewish students with deep ties to various groups Hillel wanted to reach.

At UCLA, for instance, 25 students competed for three intern spots targeting the gay, lesbian, bisexual community; Jewish student leaders; and Jewish art students. Leah Weiner, a Jewish Campus Service Corps Fellow at UCLA Hillel, interviewed nine candidates in person before making her final selection, settling on the most personable, creative and connected, she said.

UCLA senior Ariana Mechik was chosen to reach out to unaffiliated Jews with an interest in politics. Mechik, a double major in political science and French, sponsored forums once every three weeks where students could listen to and ask questions of local Jewish political leaders about their careers and how Judaism had shaped them. Guest speakers included L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Progressive Jewish Alliance Executive Director Daniel Sokatch.

Several who attended the lecture series and other Hillel-sponsored events later sought leadership positions in Bruins for Israel, an advocacy group. Going forward, Mechik said, she wants more Jewish students to run for student body political office to blunt anti-Semitism on campus.

“In general, there are some antagonistic sentiments toward Jewish students [at UCLA] because there’s a lot of sympathy for the Palestinian cause,” she said. “Israel, I think, doesn’t have the best reputation at all times. But I think Jewish students — who are actively Jewish — becoming student leaders reflects well on Judaism as a whole here on campus.”

For UCLA arts and culture intern Hana Meckler, the program reinforced her love of Judaism and Jews. The UCLA freshman said she forged several close friendships through myriad events she organized, including a visit to the Getty Museum and to a taping of “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.”

“When you have Jewish friends, it’s so much easier to be apart of the Jewish community,” Meckler said. “I feel that [this program] has done me a service as well as to the people I’ve reached out to.”

Intern Razi Zarchy, 21, said he also personally benefited from the experience because his “Jewish side” had become relatively inactive since his bar mitzvah. The senior linguistic anthropology major had the job of outreach to LGBT students, who, like him, feared ostracism by the Jewish community.

Hillel’s outreach into the gay and lesbian community helped UCLA students come out as Jews. It also made a difference for some closeted Jews, who publicly acknowledged their sexual orientation after seeing the strong response to “Purim for Divas,” LGBT movie night and the Shabbat dinners Zarchy organized.

“All of this has made people have a positive association with Judaism,” he said. “They now realize their religion isn’t going to reject them or kick them out for being different.”